For anyone whose opinion of Florida and its residents largely depends on social media and those mean-spirited “Florida Man” headlines, Kristen Arnett’s “Mostly Dead Things” may come as a disappointment. The central characters in this sad and funny book are recognizable not as easily boxed, felonious stereotypes but as complex, flesh-and-blood human beings. That their family business involves copious amounts of flesh and blood is only as weird as a reader wants it to be.
Set in Central Florida, where, Arnett writes, “theme parks and chain restaurants were built over homes and libraries” and “no one ever seemed to remember what came before,” “Mostly Dead Things” is narrated by Jessa-Lynn Morton, who assumed operation of the family taxidermy shop after her father shot himself. Jessa-Lynn discovered the body, which, she recalls, had slumped “onto the metal table where we’d cured our first hide.” Six months later, when the story begins, she is trying to work through her grief while also attempting to rescue her sinking business and family, which includes a younger brother, Milo, whose ambition extends no farther than his next beer, and a mother, Libby, who has taken to creating pornographic art from the shop’s inventory of animal parts.
Arnett, who is based in Orlando and the author of the 2017 collection “Felt in the Jaw,” gets many things right in this first novel: the feeling of being trapped and vulnerable within one’s own family; the frustration of trying to look to the future when the past has “its teeth dug into you like a rabid animal”; how “love makes you an open wound, susceptible to infection”; and the manifold risks of swimming in a warm Florida lake, where if an alligator doesn’t get you, a brain-eating amoeba might.
Most of all, Arnett skillfully and humanely captures the agony and confusion of surviving a loved one’s suicide. Jessa-Lynn oscillates between honoring her father’s memory and railing against it, between trying to fill the emptiness created by his final act and being swallowed by it. She throws herself into her work and drinks until she blacks out, one night getting “so drunk I couldn’t unbutton my pants in the bathroom.” Peace and acceptance are fleeting, anger and depression relentless.
Humor, which comes as easily to Jessa-Lynn as skinning a raccoon, offers little defense against painful memories. “Images from the past layered over each other,” she describes, “two films running at the same time: him young and bearded, smiling, hacking into deer meat, and then the way I’d last seen him, splayed out and graying. Lifeless. What had he thought in those final moments? That the letter was explanation enough? Did he think I’d consider him another piece to stuff, something I could mount and set around the house?”
Jessa-Lynn’s grief over her father’s death is compounded by the loss of Brynn Wiley, her childhood best friend, lover and sister-in-law who skipped town years earlier “for someplace even hotter than Florida with a stranger she’d met at the dry cleaner.” Brynn, who maintained a romantic relationship with Jessa-Lynn even after marrying Milo and having a child with him, appears throughout the novel in flashbacks, and Arnett excels at depicting the thrilling promise and hormonal rush of young love, as well as the abject fear of its departure. Jessa-Lynn and Milo are no match for Brynn’s steady confidence and natural cool, and long after she’s gone, Brynn remains stuck between brother and sister “like a divider we couldn’t quite pull down.” They never hear from her again, but as Jessa-Lynn notes, “She still dictated how we saw each other. How we saw other women.”
Hope arrives for Jessa-Lynn in the form of Lucinda Rex, a gallery owner eager to introduce the world to Libby’s wild, erotic art, which provides the book’s most comic moments. Although the reader realizes that Lucinda Rex, “her name already bigger than life,” will usher Jessa-Lynn back into the light of the living long before the narrator does, it’s of little consequence in Arnett’s smart and empathic novel.
“We spent so much time looking for pieces of ourselves in other people that we never realized they were busy searching for the same things in us,” Jessa-Lynn concludes near the close of “Mostly Dead Things,” her — and the book’s authenticity evident to the end.
“Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett, Tin House, 354 pp., $24.95