Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, by Christopher Irvin. Boston, Massachusetts: Cutlass Press, October 2017. $16.00, paper.
Going into this book, I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t familiar with the author’s other works, so what attracted me to this book was the premise alone: a feral twist on crime fiction, as the book’s back blurb informed me. I was intrigued. My interests were thoroughly piqued. I read onward. A crime novel populated by anthropomorphic animal people? Suddenly my mind swam with pictures of Bugs Bunny wearing a trench coat and smoking cigarettes in the glow of a misty street lamp. I wanted to read it immediately, but I was also apprehensive to a degree. I wondered if the book with such a premise would lean into absurd comedy a bit too much, not that something like that wouldn’t be entertaining to read. I worried that a premise I found so enticing wouldn’t be everything I wanted it to be. Suffice to say, however, Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All exceeded and subverted my expectations almost at every turn. Beyond simply being entertaining, Ragged proves thought provoking. Much like the carnivorous animals that populate its pages, the book consumed me. It demanded my thoughtful attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it long after I put it down, and for many days thereafter. Ragged is the type of book that I’m going to force my friends to borrow and read. I want to talk about it with people!
To recap: Ragged is a work of dark crime fiction, characters anthropomorphized in a way that’s somewhere between Watership Down and Goodfellas. The characters are animals. The setting is a richly textured wilderness. Main character Cal, a beagle with a dark past working for a raccoon crime boss, has moved on from that life and gone straight. That is, until he’s drawn back into the thick of it when tragedy strikes. He’s forced to protect not only himself and his community, but also his new family. The stakes have changed. The violence is all the same. It’s a setup that exudes a sense of classic crime novel storytelling. Irvin’s prose and plot are familiar enough that the reader is drawn into the narrative almost immediately, but out there and, dare I say, wild enough to fascinate and distinguish itself from typical crime fiction.
Irvin’s setting is rich and vivid in its bleak beauty: a woods preparing for the coming winter. Like much of what goes on in the novel, the setting appears simple on the surface, but has an incredible amount of depth under the surface. I was incredibly engrossed in Ragged, as Irvin wrings as much mileage out of his setup as possible. Anthropomorphizing non-human objects and creatures is and always has been one of the best way to meditate and comment on some aspect of the human condition, and Irvin’s settings and characters don’t disappoint, diving deep into thought provoking, just-under-the-surface ideas about humanity. To name a few: Irvin’s novel examines a society that is so desensitized to horrific violence that murder seems almost commonplace—sound familiar? Irvin’s novel also looks at the boundaries that divide us, both physical and cultural. When the characters cross the river that divides the more affluent, civilized Woods, and the run down Rubbish Heap, it’s like passing into a completely different world, which is to say nothing for the obvious parallel between how certain bigoted characters behave towards other characters based on their species alone—sound familiar?
There’s this war between innocence and harsh reality that’s present in the pages of Ragged. I think this has a lot to do with the whimsical, almost fairy tale like concept, and like many classic fairy tales, that whimsical, child-friendly appearance hides a level of dark complexity that reminds me of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and classic Grimm stories. In the novel, Cal tries his hardest to protect his young pups from the harsh reality of the world, of the violence that rules all their lives, but in the end it proves impossible. The characters are forced to live and adapt to a world that is full of violence. They are animals after all, and the animal kingdom is uncaring and sometimes cruel. Kill or be killed. It’s just nature. But these animals can walk and talk. They can reason and they can love. They can feel intense honor and duty, or intense desire for revenge, and it is in the overlap of these human emotions and animal desires that Ragged finds its most poignant theme: humanity’s war with its very nature.
The themes Ragged deals with are all important and worth discussing, especially in our current cultural landscape, but beyond being thought provoking, the book is just one hell of a page turner. I found myself speeding through it in a few days, eager to see where the plot would turn next, taking notes at the way Irvin builds tension. Ragged builds a world that feels gritty and lived in, something incredibly close to home. Irvin at once utilizes and subverts the tropes of the genre to create a literary work that is at times darkly comedic, uplifting, and nail bitingly intense. You know that a book is good when the only criticism you can think of is: “I sure wish that I got to spend more time in its pages!” To any of my friends reading this review: get ready for me to shove this in your face and demand you read it. I, much like Irvin’s book, am relentless, and I will not stop until you have experienced its intricate complexities. Ragged is layered, deep, entertaining, and a thought provoking meditation on that which makes us human, and that which doesn’t. This is pretty much what all books should strive for.
Robert Young was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Ball State University where he was the Lead Poetry Editor for the 2015 issue of the Broken Plate. His work has been published in Midwestern Gothic, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and The Evansville Review. In the fall, he will be studying poetry in the MFA program at UMass Boston.