Alice in ranchland 

Aryn Kyle’s adolescent looking glass

Aryn Kyle’s flinty, unbroken first novel is on fire with horses: spotted mares and aging thoroughbreds vying for expression alongside brand new foals and bow-legged killers, the last of which Kyle’s 12-year-old narrator Alice Winston explains, were “good for nothing but rendering plants and schoolroom glue.”

The quip is typical of Alice, who over the course of The God of Animals tries mightily to grow into her precocious cynicism, an affectation it’s tough to begrudge the girl. Her mother languishes upstairs in bed with depression, her sister has run away with a cowboy, and as the novel begins, Alice’s classmate turns up dead, clogging a storm drain. Alice’s father—a rancher turned riding instructor and stable-keeper for the well-to-do—finds the dead girl. “You stay away from that canal when walking home, Alice,” he says.

Handling a preteen with words is akin to expecting a horse to canter without reins: only the skilled need apply. And Alice’s father may know horses, but he’s hopeless with girls. So off we are as Alice flirts with danger then steps back, behaves well then two-steps toward sexual experience—all the while watching her father invest more and more of their precious earnings on new horses. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if The God of Animals is a family meltdown about to happen, or one unfolding in slow motion.

Like Annie Proulx, Judy Blunt and Maile Meloy before her, Kyle, an MFA graduate of the University of Montana, brilliantly reveals how a vibrant, female world pulses at the heart of proto-masculine ranch life. Girls come for riding lessons and become women; women sit on the sidelines coaching their daughters along, casting glances at Alice’s father. The book throbs with sexual tension. Like many adolescents, Alice assumes she’s at the center of it all—and that nothing is lost on her. She watches her father from the fence line as he flirts with other women and sniffs during one Friday night on the town, “I had never known my father could dance.”

Despite the increasing frequency with which it’s now done, writing a novel from the perspective of an adolescent is difficult. Preteens affect knowingness yet know very little; they are loyal to a point, and then quick to betray their upbringing as a sort of revenge. Kyle understands all this, and moreover, exhibits exquisite command of Alice’s voice. As a narrator, Alice acts her age while still drifting free of diagnostically flat truisms about her age group, becoming something artful and mysterious.

The horses help. As in Arthur Miller and John Huston’s The Misfits, the animals which appear in Kyle’s book are powerful, magnificent symbols. They twist and writhe and defy the men and women sitting on their backs. They need to be controlled, and Kyle writes about this process so well it’s hard not to wince with the unfairness of it all.

“The twitch was made from two pieces of metal hinged together at one end like a nutcracker,” Kyle describes in one scene, in which Alice helps her father break a mare. “Only instead of cracking a nut between the metal pieces, it was supposed to be placed over the softest, most delicate skin of a horse’s nose, then squeezed. It was the surest way to keep a horse still, and the nastiest.”

Saddest about this scene is that Alice does the squeezing. Pushed to her emotional limits by her home life, Alice reasons that the way through the pain is to cause more—and eventually it catches up with her. Her dead classmate had a strange, secret relationship with a teacher that Alice resurrects and makes her own. She begins meeting boys at the dances downtown. On top of it all, as her father obsesses about making a living, Alice becomes the glue, or so she thinks, keeping their crumbling household together. Alice’s perception and the world around her do not always cohere and working out the discrepancies leads to all the trouble any story could hope for.

Kyle grew up in Grand Junction, Colo., near where this novel is set, and writes beautifully about the stark, barren, broken-down, no-prospect aridity of the landscape. Droughts and rain become as mythical as world wars, and the story moves with the rhythms of high plains towns, where the violence of ranch life is ferried off the farm on Friday nights and sublimated by beer and dance, and the usual things that follow.

But unlike many first novels, The God of Animals never feels so nostalgic for where it comes from that it forgets to tell a story. Kyle switches gears late in the novel and drives her tale toward the kind of dramatic conclusion it leads you to believe is coming from page one. There are some rough patches along the way, and not every cliché has been struck from its prose. But by the end, Kyle controls the story like a natural born storyteller. Indeed, Alice’s father could be describing the narrative, and not just a soon-to-be-broken mare, when he yells: “She was smooth…Even when she was jumping and thrashing around, it was like riding water.”
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