For the third time in the past four years I’ve enjoyed reading a book written by a friend. In 2013 it was Joe Gaspard’s gently humorous short novel Giff. Then in 2014, Clay Christensen’s wry collection of essays in The Birdman of Lauderdale.
Just in the past month or so, I’ve reconnected on Facebook with a high school friend with whom I had been out-of-touch for more than 30 years. (If my Internet-augmented memory serves, it was at a Rolling Stones concert in October of 1981 that we last met. Yes, time does really fly!) While catching up with him, I learned he’d written a novel.
So it happened that a week or two ago I purchased and read Bruce Dennler’s debut novel Killing the Squirrel. Wow! It is a delight.
Our hero and narrator, Pete Johnson, is a single, successful, thirty-something advertising copywriter living large in a late 1990s New York City bubble of his own. Floating, almost entirely disattached from his small-town past. He talks every couple of months to his widowed father, but has no brothers or sisters, and feels no pull from extended family or childhood friends.
Some bubbles burst, others seem to slowly collapse in upon themselves. Pete’s followed the second path. A vaguely unsettling wind-shift professionally, a disturbing news item, an ominous name from the past, and a clawing sensation in the chest. Just a passing discomfiture, or something more?
Pete’s three best friends are fellow travelers–hardworking professionals, football-loving, tail-chasing, post-frat man-boys. Bros, but good-hearted bros. Something about the foursome, and a brief foreshadowy visit from a couple of characters straight out of a rural Californian Appalachia had me expecting a Deliverance-ish cathartic weekend odyssey.
Yes, I could practically hear the banjos. Perhaps accordions instead, as Pete’s pal Brophy squealed like a porcine Ned Beatty somewhere deep in the Catskills.
But, no, this is not another city-boys-test-themselves-in-the-wilderness tale. Yes, there is a squirrel, a weasel, an “ant trail,” a swift and dangerous stream, and a loyal bearlike creature. But the wilderness that matters is hidden deep in Pete’s subconscious. Can he find his way to it? Through it?
It’s a page-turner, full of humanity and humor, with surprising twists. It seems that every time I thought I knew what was coming next, I was wrong. A very satisfying read.
I don’t want to oversell it. I am aware that my objectivity is compromised by my relationship with the author. But I’m convinced this is a novel deserving of a much wider audience than it has received. Dennler writes in an afterword that he came close to selling the book to a traditional publisher, but a deal fell through. It was said to have “no clear target reader–being too ‘male’ in voice for women, and too emotional in content for men.” He concedes there is some logic to this view (and I can understand it too), but surely there are thoughtful readers of both sexes for whom this reductive thinking does not apply.
Digital publishing makes it possible for us to enjoy it. Buy it from Amazon.com for a ridiculously low price (and, as I’ve learned, it is not necessary to own or use a Kindle to read it). It’s even available for free to members of the Kindle Unlimited program.
Psst! Bruce: I really think there is a screenplay in the book.
- I am certain of the date of the concert: October 17, 1981. Not quite as sure that’s the last time we met.
Thanks to the Internet, I know the complete setlist and I’ve even found and downloaded an incomplete soundboard bootleg. Sounds okayish. That’s my stunning original photograph of Mick & Keith from our vantage point ten yards or so from the stage, as only a vintage (even then) 110mm Kodak Pocket Instamatic could produce.
Bruce and I, along with several friends, made the two-and-a-half hour trip to San Francisco because we knew it would be one of the last-ever opportunities to see the Stones play live. Mick Jagger, after all, was 38; parts of Keith Richards were as old as 37! [^]
- Yes, the author is aware of the joke here. [^]
- Of course I had the author, circa 1980, in mind as I pictured the protagonist in my head. I recognized aspects of his personality–his self-deprecating sense of humor, for sure–and some biographical details. I also recognized departures, most notably in the makeup and description of his family. This is not a memoir disguised as fiction.
It was fun to try to pickup on allusions to people and places I might know. There is a comic character, a high school football teammate of Pete’s with a last name easily anagrammed to “Hunter.” I wanted to recognize him, but I didn’t. (This guy knew exactly what Pete, living in New York City and working at a Madison Ave ad agency, was going through. Yes, he himself had lived for a time in Sacramento and had even sold advertising space in Chico’s Penny Saver weekly.)
There was one mention of
Bruce’sPete’s mom on the phone with a “Mrs Bachman.” [^]
- I don’t own a Kindle, but found the experience of reading the book in Amazon’s free, web-based Kindle Cloud Reader easy and enjoyable. [^]