Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Glass menagerie

Bullfighting! Again! Actually, this is a total coincidence, I picked up Tawni O'Dell's Fragile Beasts simply because I liked the cover and the title. Fragile Beasts is O'Dell's fourth novel, all of which are set in western Pennsylvania's coal country. As such, one encounters the type of characters one would expect: baseball-hatted, beer-gutted men with chronic lower back pain and persistent coughs, high-schoolers already headed for a life of manual labor and disappointment, and the wealthy, exploitative mine owners who live with and yet apart from the rest of the townspeople.

Teenage brothers Kyle and Klint and their father, a former mine-worker-turned-janitor, have been abandoned by their mother, who ran off to Arizona with their younger sister, but the guys soldier on. Klint is a local baseball hero, and it's expected that he'll get a sports scholarship to a university. Kyle is the younger, smarter, more timid brother. He enjoys drawing but hides it, fearful of ridicule, and while his father and Klint have baseball over which to bond, Kyle is aware that his father is bewildered by him.

Their father dies in a car accident, and their vile mother Rhonda reluctantly returns from Arizona to get them. Neither Kyle nor Klint want to leave, and Klint is afraid of losing his shot at a scholarship if he moves during his critical junior year. Enter Candace Jack, the elderly, reclusive sister of the deceased Stan Jack, the owner of J and P Coal. Candace's youngest grandniece, Shelby, has a crush on Klint and is friends with Kyle, and she persuades her prickly great-aunt to let the boys move in with her.

Candace Jack is one of those old ladies about whom rumors are spread that are far more exciting than reality. She lives in a tidy, large house with only Luis, her cook/butler/whatever, and a black bull named Ventisco who roams her massive estate. Candace's one love, a toreador named Manuel, ate it in the ring back in the late 50s, and Candace brought the bull that gored him back to the States. Ventisco is Calladito's grandson (grandbull? whatever). Candace's house is plastered with posters of the famous Manuel and she seems fossilized - speaking Spanish with Luis, eating Spanish food, never marrying, never really getting past losing Manuel (although, in terms of mortality, marrying a coal miner and marrying a toreador may be roughly comparable).

Candace lets the boys move in with her, mostly to tweak her despised nephew, the florid Cam Jack. That line of the Jack family is straight out of central casting - blobby, grasping capitalist Cam, his drunken beauty queen wife Rae, and his triad of spoiled, self-indulged daughters.

Klint and Kyle take up residence in Candace's house, learn to appreciate Spanish food, and more or less get along okay with the aloof old lady. Klint is pricklier than Kyle, but things seem to be going well, until Rhonda turns up again and demands that the boys come live with her (or she'll accept a sizeable cash payment instead).

Revelations are had, relationships are strained or broken, Candace convinces Kyle to start taking his art serious, Luis yells things in Spanish at the heavens, but things end up with a Lifetime movie ending. There are some genuinely funny lines, particularly in the repartee between Luis and Candace, but the characters seem two-dimensional and stale. Rhonda and her equally distasteful sister Jen deliver hackneyed lines, swan around in tight jeans and bleached hair, and generally comport themselves like contestants on Sharon Osbourne's Charm School. Chapters are told from the viewpoint of Kyle and Candace, except for one from Luis, which interrupts the flow of the novel and seems weirdly expository and self-conscious. Luis is not only (of course) an expert cook, he dresses really well and serves as Candace's conscience and straight man, sort of like a Latino Girl Friday. Kyle's character seems more like a list of check boxes (artistic tendencies unappreciated by his blue-collar parents? Check! Gets beaten up by the local meatheads? Check! Hides his intelligence? Check!). That kid from Bridge to Terebithia (you know, the one who didn't die) was better rounded.

Klint is more interesting, although he remains as closed off to the reader as he does to his brother and Candace. The shocking - shocking!! - revelation comes out of left field, if you'll excuse that uniquely horrible pun, and just seems sort of plopped into the plot, then it's never mentioned again. Ventisco, Candace's bull, doesn't actually do anything either, aside from being referred to musingly, over and over and then over and over again as a metaphor for everything from Manuel's wildness, the bull's inherent nobility, and something about man's natural tendency to, I don't know, seriously irritate a creature who tops a thousand pounds and has really sharp horns. The Gun Principal is violated here (don't show the gun unless it's going to go off - similarly, don't show the bull unless you plan on having him gore someone, or at least charge a car or whatever), leaving the bull to noodle peaceably around Candace's estate.

I think O'Dell is making a point that everyone is a fragile beast, even the bull, perhaps even Kyle and Klint's loathsome mom (although O'Dell doesn't go far enough in her character for us to see anything but her grotesqueness). The book's premise sets the reader up for a deep, complex work, but unfortunately O'Dell's limp characters can't live up to that promise.

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