The Short Version: Taxidermist Romie Futch is middle-aged, divorced, and nearly bankrupt. So when he sees an ad for a well-funded neuroscience research study, he signs up. The study downloads a broad swath of knowledge and he becomes a better man… but what to do with all that knowledge on the outside? Get his wife back? Hunt down the near-mythic Hogzilla? Keep on keeping on?
The Review: What a wild novel. There’s something wonderfully unkempt about it, like the way unkempt wilderness is always better than anything manicured or even lightly tamed. Julia Elliott’s first collection, The Wilds, garnered some raves from several folks whose opinions I trust entirely – but I received this way-early as part of an Indiespensable package… and thought I’d start with her as a novelist and go from there.
I went and ordered The Wilds pretty much immediately after finishing this book. I would’ve ordered it sooner, but I was too busy reading.
In a lot of ways, this is an ideal October Country read even though it doesn’t play into the standard creepiness that it can be easy to lean on at this time of year. Instead, it is a wacked out version of…. well, of several things: a Southern Gothic tale, a WMFU novel, mad scientists and bioengineering straight out of late Michael Crichton, a monster hunt, and a remarkably insightful look at the psychological profile of the average American middle-aged male living in the South. What unifies all of these things is Elliott’s playfulness and clear joy in the telling.
Romie (short for Roman) Futch is not doing great when we meet him – but he’s also not doing bad. He’s got friends, he’s got a job (kind of), he’s got his health (kind of). He is living one of the proverbial “lives of quiet desperation” – but he has glimmers of the man he could’ve been. He, like so many, knows that his chance was there and if only he’d seized it! And as his brain expands once he arrives at the Center, it’s impossible not to feel happy for him. You know, just as so many of the other characters around him do, that his former relationship will not make him happy – but no matter how smart a person is (or becomes), chances are they’re just as dumb as everybody else when it comes to relationships.
Still, you can’t help but root for Romie, especially as we explore from the inside out his burgeoning vocabulary and knowledge base. It’s hilarious in a very warm way, how these washed-up middle-aged men fall into plotting and planning and intellectual debate that would make tenured academics pause.
And that’s just the first half of the novel.
When Romie finishes the study and heads back home, we see the WMFU-novel kick into gear: he wants to use his newfound intelligence and acumen to woo back the woman he lost, send his business into stratospheric heights, and generally be the envy of everybody. What ensues won’t surprise you, but the book never takes the easy way out of treating Romie like a character or like somebody to laugh at. You’re laughing with him or you’re cringing with him/for him – he’s like your friend who you just desperately want to succeed, but you know that they probably won’t.
Then there’s Hogzilla.
It felt like Elliott’s imagination went a little off the rails as she introduced the looming malice of a shady corporation that’s polluting the area and wreaking havoc with the flora and fauna – and that might be somehow involved in Romie’s miracle study, too – but she commits completely and credit must be given for such willingness to go all the way. Hogzilla is an inspired creation (as is Romie’s whole Ahab-esque journey after the beast) but the jumble of plots at the end felt a little underbaked, as though the novel could’ve ended 40 pages earlier or 200 pages later. We were caught in a moment of low-stakes just as things started to ramp up again – and especially because the reader has already come through a whole lot of rip-snorting wildness, it felt a shame to leave the tale just before getting to experience more. I wanted to go out on a bang and instead we went out on a smash-cut tease of more adventures. Still, I’m happy to know that Romie’s story isn’t over – we just might not see it on the page.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A really delightful mad-cap Southern Gothic-with-a-twist tale. I had a blast reading it and Elliott’s linguistic gymnastics are to die for – she goes from the lowest dude-speak to the highest flights of rhetorical fancy and makes both of them fit perfectly in the same story. She’s a talent to watch, for sure, and one can only hope that she writes more tales of the strange and fantastical – she’s the right kind of writer for the fall.