Avaritia: A Fable, by M.D. Westbrook- Book Review by Fred Patten
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer
Avaritia: A Fable, by M.D. Westbrook
Wichita, KS, M.W. Publishers, April 2016, trade paperback $9.99 (200 pages), Kindle $1.00.
Usually the dedication of a book is not pertinent, but this one really sets the mood:
“This book is dedicated to rising taxes, broken promises, forgotten children, crime, starvation, war, death, and despair.
Thanks for the inspiration, guys. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
Avaritia has a very plain cover (by the author, credited as Mark D. Westbrook), but it turns out that there is a reason for this. The novel is grim and preachy, but fascinating in an Old Testament way. The only anthropomorphic novel that I can think of that’s remotely similar to this is the black comedy Play Little Victims by Kenneth Cook (1978). See my 2014 review of it on Flayrah: https://www.flayrah.com/5725/review-play-little-victims-kenneth-cook
But there is nothing funny about Avaritia. I read Play Little Victims almost forty years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I don’t expect to ever forget Avaritia, either.
Avaritia begins in a house with a human father, a mother, and two brothers. The younger brother has three pet rats. The older brother has a bowl of mice, but Older Brother Human only keeps them to feed to his pet snake.
The characters in Avaritia are its mice and rats. The story begins with Older Brother Human lifting Radish, one of the mice, out of the bowl to feed to his boa constrictor while her mate, Cookie, pounds on the glass and squeaks, “Take me! Take me and leave her!”
“Cookie cried uncontrollably, watching as the snake slithered behind his mate.
In a blink, the snake struck. Radish released a final squeak as the constrictor wrapped around her lower abdomen.
‘Noooo!’ Cookie wailed.
Radish opened her mouth, gasping, and beat her tiny paws against the orange and yellow scales, but to no avail. Radish’s once soft pink eyes bulged, now a darker hue of red.
Older Brother Human laughed out loud. ‘Good boy, Petey. Eat ‘er up.’” (p. 2)
Most of the mice accept their eventual doom fatalistically. They have even made it into a religion.
“York turned to the crowd of mouse families. ‘We honor those who make the sacrifice. Another day to eat. Another day to sleep. What a glory to give your all for fellow mice.’” (p. 3)
Only Benny, a young black-furred mouse, has doubts about this fatalism. He is the skeptic who questions everything; the Cassandra whom nobody listens to.
The plot changes drastically on page 7. (Sorry; that’s supposed to be a spoiler.) Younger Brother Human’s three rats get loose – mates Mad and Dolley, and their daughter Moon — cross the hall and liberate the cage-mice (despite mice and rats supposedly having nothing to do with each other), take them to join the mice in the house’s walls, and they all escape together. The humans, who had looked like they would be important in the story, completely disappear.
Many of the mice want to remain close to the humans’ house to raid it for food, but the rats and the leaders of the mice insist they have to get as far away as possible.
“‘Why didn’t we just stay in the walls of the humans’ house?’ asked Cookie. ‘You wall-mice were fine there.’
‘Pib, Fib, and Tib. See those three numbskulls?’ Lint scowled in the direction of three identical mice with bright red fur, currently flirting with one of Cookie’s daughters. The female mouse giggled as the mouse trio literally fought for her attention, yanking at each other’s tails, biting and scratching. […] ‘Those three have dung for brains. They thought it was a good idea to steal from the humans’ food pantry.’
‘And they were caught?’ asked Cookie.
‘No, but Mother Human didn’t have to be a genius to realize it wasn’t raisins in her cereal,’ replied Lint.
A few of the babes, and even the older mice, chuckled at this.
‘You can all laugh, but Father Human talked of poison and traps … and even a cat,’ said Lint in a serious voice.” (pgs. 16-17)
They all settle near “a solid wall of cornstalks, continuing in both directions as far as the eye could see. To the right of the rodents stood a single mighty cottonwood tree.” (p. 18) With the corn for food, the tall cornstalks to hide among, and the plowed soft earth to burrow into, the escapees have found a perfect home. Everyone has all the corn that they can eat.
Instead, it all turns into a nightmare. Avaritia is a Conservative extremist’s parable of what will happen if the Liberals control society, with the rats as the Conservatives and the mice as the Liberals. The rats are hard workers who follow The Old Code. They spend all day climbing the cornstalks to pry corn kernels from the corncobs, but they want to keep what they amass and spend it as they wish. The mice scorn them as greedy and selfish, hoarding their wealth instead of using it to help the community.
It starts out small, when their community is attacked by a much-larger opossum:
“‘We believe,’ announced York [the community’s leader and Benny’s father]. ‘that a defense against the opossum would be feasible. However, it would require time for training, planning, and a vigil watch. This would allow the other mice to work and live in peace. As for payment for these services, these … these defenders will no longer have to work in the field.’
An excited murmur broke out.
‘Since the defenders will be serving all mice, all mice will contribute a single kernel from each leaf harvested to a pile. This pile will then be divided and shared amongst the defenders.’” (p. 31)
The rats object to participating, but are outvoted by the mice. When some mice become too sick or too old and feeble to harvest their own kernels, the community votes to give them a kernel a day from the pile. The pile is officially named the Kindness Pile, and the mice congratulate themselves on their generosity. The community is dubbed Generocity.
When some mice have more babies than their parents can support, they are allowed to take kernels from the Kindness Pile. That’s what community spirit is all about! When the Kindness Pile shrinks faster than it grows, the mice agree to increase the Kindness donation to two kernels – then three kernels. Generocity should support schools for the mouse babies. Four kernels! As more mice see their daily harvests shrink through these donations, they call in sick so they can eat without working like the genuinely sick. Those relying upon generosity grow more numerous, until one day the Kindness Pile completely disappears. Where has all the corn gone? The selfish rats must be stealing it. Tax the rats especially heavily!!
This review gives away the basic plot. Read Avaritia to find out the fate of the mice, of the rats — of Generocity. And what Avaritia means.
The details aren’t pretty. Little Benny is the Everymouse who witnesses it all, and plays an important part at the climax. Whether you agree with the moral philosophy or not, Westbrook tells a compelling tale in short, easy-to-read chapters.
The price on the book is $9.99, but Amazon says it’s $5.99 without any discounts. The Kindle is even cheaper.
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