The inside flap of “Rough Animals” by Rae DelBianco proclaims “From a dazzling new voice in fiction, a propulsive rural thriller for fans of “Breaking Bad” and “No Country for Old Men.” Perhaps it seems unlikely, given the abhorrent behavior demonstrated by the bulk of the players in the aforementioned tales and my own highly polished manners and reasonably polished monocles, but I enthusiastically recommend both stories. There are few advertisements one could slap on a book flap that would make me more likely to peruse the contents. After a perusal, I read the novel.
First, I agree that fans of the aforementioned works are more likely to enjoy “Rough Animals.” Second, if, like me, you sometimes roll your eyes at Cormac McCarthy’s prose, you’re going to want to ensure you’re eyes are sufficiently lubricated before commencing this novel. Third, if, also like me, you eventually fall into a rhythm with McCarthy’s style, then I venture you’ll find plenty to enjoy in DelBianco’s debut novel.
“Rough Animals” is about twins who live alone on a struggling ranch in Utah. The novel opens with one of the twins finding a dead steer, and given that the loss of even a single steer means they’ll lose their ranch, we have an immediate problem for our protagonist to confront. The steer is dead because a hungry girl killed it. She’s eating the raw meat straight off the corpse when she’s discovered. Here’s a twin’s first good look at her, which might give you an idea if this style is suited to your tastes:
“A creature with mud plastered to its face, dried and cracked around the eyes and in chunks of dirt upon the small forehead and cheeks, excepting a broken black slash of a mouth bordered in stain from the steer. A creature the size of a child in the posture of a monk. Its face was rendered browless by the caked mud, and the wild crop of hair was ridden with leaves and twigs and other flotsam of the woods in that river-rapid of matted black. Fevered eyes of yellowed tan rode below lids that were leveled, flat as earth, as if the gunfight had not stirred their expression. He lifted a shoeless foot as if to take cover behind the nearest tree but instead against his own will pushed it forward to make his stand. It held a TEC-9 in the left hand and a worn shotgun in the right.”
(It’s pretty fun to transcribe that wild jazz, and it’s often a great deal of fun to read it.)
With a few steer dead and the twins’ financials and ranch imperiled, Wyatt (one of the twins) takes the girl hostage until he can figure out a way to make her pay for the steer she ate and the others she shot. She escapes, he chases her, there’s some fighting, Wyatt kills a human (not the girl) for the first time, he catches her, they buy medicine from the pet section of a chain store to treat their gunshot wounds, and they take a gig with some of her old associates to make a little cash.
I found the prose style particularly suited to describing the desert and the perils that await within it. Sure you have the pyrotechnics of gun and molotov fights, and the girl’s horrific and impressive felling of a couple of methamphetamine enthusiasts, but you also have stalking coyotes, the looming threat of death by dehydration, the slaking of thirst with coyote blood, and a hermit with mental illness. If you’re looking to have a grim and sometimes strangely beautiful time in the desert, and you don’t have the means or inclination to go to Las Vegas, “Rough Animals” is available free of charge from Daniel Boone Regional Library.