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Reviews Tue Mar 22 2011

Something Peculiar in the Heartland


Doug Crandell's Sherwood Anderson Award-winning novel The Peculiar Boars of Malloy tells the tale of two male hogs purchased for siring abilities who are wired with "a love that dare not speak its name" (i.e., they're gay). How much is there to say about two hogs and their habits? Not much, but when anti-gay activists get wind of the discovery they swarm the farm and a media circus ensues.

Peculiar Boars is the story of the Bancroft family - teenaged brothers Lance and Ronald, their father Gerald and their Aunt Lee. Their father is a laughingstock in their small Indiana town of Malloy. Extremely short, wearing a boys size 14/16, his anatomy made him the butt of jokes from a young age and his disposition didn't help. He grew up the kind of bullied kid who wants so badly to fit in he'll help others diminish him just to do so. He apparently never grew out of that stage, and lacks a solid sense of self, to put it mildly. He comes across as a petite, rural Homer Simpson crossed with Elmer Fudd. The father has great hopes of turning his image around with his prize hogs and instead becomes a bigger laughingstock when his friends catch the boars in the act and spread the news to the local media.

The father is away from the central action and narrative for long stretches of the novel, which reminded me a bit of characters on a sitcom talking around absent characters on account of the actors who play them being pregnant or on drugs or fighting with the producers. I felt a bit that Crandell didn't know what to do with the character of Gerald and as such kind of wrote around him. Though she's the sort of solid, no-nonsense farm woman who keeps everything in order and refers to herself in the third person, Aunt Lee is also gone for long stretches of time as the story plays out. The boys' mother abandoned them long ago, her presence diminished to hand-drawn Christmas cards.

With the natural authority figures asleep at the wheel or otherwise occupied offstage, the boys band together and muddle through as best they can. The attempt to fix one of their crises is summed up as "he knew it was useless, but it was something to do, and working on something was all we'd ever known." Ronald is the older brother and de facto male head of the household. Intelligent and driven, Ronald longs to be a veterinarian. He feels great compassion for all animals, and feels particularly protective of the persecuted boars. He sees in their situation a chance to turn semen into lemonade, as it were (seriously, if jokes about pig semen are your thing, this book's got tons. Though that one was original). Ronald contacts agricultural professors at a local university about their situation. Together they devise a plan to both keep the boars safe and for Ronald to earn real life AP credit: The boys will learn artificial insemination so the boars' seed doesn't go to waste.

Lance, the center of the story, isn't so crazy about the thought of getting so intimate with pigs, but reluctantly goes along with the plan out of loyalty to his brother. All the while they dodge the local media, Lance falls in lust with a local girl and alternating chapters provide family history through flashbacks. There's a tender sadness to the flashback chapters, where a younger Lance and Ronald spin wild theories about their mother, assuming life with her must be better than life with their father. Being the absent parent, she's a natural subject of fascination. The boys project their wishes for a different life onto her, as neglected children with unmet needs are wont to do. They track her down through her return address and the reality of her life throws them for a loop, to say the least.

The overall tone of Peculiar Boars is gentle and wryly humorous. It very much has the feel of blunt small town talk and reminded me a bit of family trips to Champaign-Urbana. I loved the little details that gave a very grounded sense of place (grass is not just grass but fescue; female hogs are gilts until they breed and are then are called sows). Rocky Mountain News says "author Doug Crandell reminds me of a far less intense J. D. Salinger." Not sure I agree, but it's something to chew on (and I sure would put that quote on my website, were I a published author). If by "less intense," they mean "less misanthropic," I suppose they have a point. Both authors' work feature misfit characters trying to make the best of ridiculous situations. The heart of Peculiar Boars is the way the two brothers form a makeshift family with the man from the agricultural school, two strange boys who try to kidnap them, and Lance's new girlfriend Lucy. Lance describes Lucy thus: "I determined that she would be like the women I'd seen at tractor pulls: fierce with their love but vulnerable, too, like they might slap you and then cry about it, pulling you close for a hug, the scent of fabric softener their only perfume." Lucy blends right in with the family. Upon hearing of their artificial insemination plans, Lucy, a nurse's aide, simply says "sometimes guys get boners when you place the bedpans."

The book's villains can be a bit amorphous and over the top, their motives not entirely clear. Overall, though, The Peculiar Boars of Malloy is a sweet, funny tale of proudly flying your freak flag and making a home wherever you are.

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