“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”
Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.
The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.