Fagan’s short, quirky fiction gets just a bit wild

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Adopting a wolf, weasel or wolverine sounds like an extremely bad idea, but in Cary Fagan’s novel The Animals, it adds to the overall zaniness of the topsy-turvy world he creates.

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Adopting a wolf, weasel or wolverine sounds like an extremely bad idea, but in Cary Fagan’s novel The Animals, it adds to the overall zaniness of the topsy-turvy world he creates.

Fagan, a Toronto resident, is an acclaimed author of 25 children’s books, novels and short-story collections. His novel The Student was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award; his short-story collection My Life Among the Apes was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In The Animals, he aptly combines everyday reality with the make believe found in children’s books.

The Animals’ protagonist, Dorn, is a 38-year-old bachelor still residing in the village of his birth. He primarily earns his living creating miniature wooden models displayed in the windows of local businesses. When the novel begins, he’s crafting a suitable scene for the Velvet Touch, a sex shop opened by siblings Tul and Tule. After admiring Dorn’s work, they suggest that he might be interested in buying an inflatable doll to meet his sexual needs.

Mark Raynes Roberts photo

Author Cary Fagan

“Certified non-toxic,” said Tul. “Sniff her, Dorn. The old ones used to smell like an inflatable lifeboat.”

Blushing, the prudish Dorn rejects the store owners’ offer, but recalls his last, rather unsatisfactory, sexual encounter with an older prostitute. Dorn has a crush on local teacher, Ravenna, a very tall woman who is skilled in throwing the javelin. However, instead of pursuing an athletic career, she decided to enter teachers college, although the villagers were hoping for her to become a famous athlete. Dorn often visits the quaint Happy Café — where the staff wear little suede dresses or shorts with suspenders and pointed hats with elfin ears — as Ravenna is also a frequent customer. Although they have a friendly relationship, Dorn is too shy to ask Ravenna for a date.

When dropping off a bag of coffee beans, Dorn is shocked to discover his Linder Row neighbour, Leev, has a female wolf inside his house. Dorn later learns about the new pilot project, Bring the Wild Home, in which villagers can get an animal license and adopt a wild animal. Dorn’s father Feenis tells him that his younger brother Vin is participating, and Ravenna discloses that one of her students told her the raccoon mother and pups they adopted have destroyed the inside of his house.

Even though Dorn is puzzled by this project, he resents feeling like the last person to find out about it, and views this as a symptom of his current social isolation. “He couldn’t understand why he seemed to be learning about the program after everyone else and saw it as another sign that life was somehow passing him by.” While Dorn considers joining in this scheme, he’s never owned a domestic animal and is even slightly scared of cats and dogs.

Even though Dorn is older, taller and better looking than his brother, Vin dominates their relationship. Vin is a successful businessman, although Dorn isn’t exactly sure of how Vin makes his money. “To say that Dorn and Vin were different was like comparing a mid-winter afternoon to a summer storm. As a child, Dorn had rarely cried or demanded but sat watching the world with melancholy eyes that inspired adults to say he’d been born with an old soul. His brother, on the other hand, was a thumper, a screamer, a thrower of food and toys.”

As well as the unusual, vaguely Scandinavian-sounding names of his characters, Fagan includes details about Dorn’s village that also give it an antique European feel. “As a tourist destination, the village was known for its quaintness, for the steam-powered clock whose metallic figures paraded on the hour in front of the village hall, for Dorn’s models (a not-quite-up-to-date walking guide was available at the hall), for a kind of cheese — similar to blue but even stronger, a match for the local brown ale — and for its proximity to the forest.”

The Animals

Throughout The Animals, Dorn is primarily shown as an underdog, but a cataclysmic event turns the tables for him. The Animals is a slim novel, but well-written and quirky enough to be an enjoyable read.

Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.

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