Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, by Christopher Irvin – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, by Christopher Irvin. Illustrations by Conor Nolan.
Boston, MA, Cutlass Press, October 2017, trade paperback, $16.00 (250 [+1] pages).

“Cal sat along the riverbank atop a wind-swept pile of dry, dead leaves. Bare feet at the water’s edge, pea coat buttoned to his chin. The ancestry of his mixed breed had been lost to time, but if you’d been fortunate to be in the company of a variety of the Canis lupus familiaris, you might think his facial features resembled that of a beagle: dusty white from nose to top of skull blending with a reddish-brown along the sides of his face and lower jaw, eyes sharp with a tinge of sadness, and long ears that dangled near his shoulders, that at first glance might cause one to mistake his nature for more playful than it was. Cal would deem himself a proud mutt, but when you’re head of the sole family of dogs to make their home in the Woods, you become the dog; the definition your face, your actions. All in all, it was a mixed bag – especially considering his past. When you grow up with an exiled raccoon with a penchant for poaching for a mentor, life in the Woods is an uphill battle. Cal clutched a makeshift fishing rod loosely in his paws – a slightly gnarled branch with a bit of moss-dyed twine […]” (p. 11)

Well, this paragraph goes on for another half-page. Author Irvin describes Ragged as like “Fargo meets Wind in the Willows”. The back-cover blurb begins, “In a feral twist on crime fiction, Cal, a mutt with a criminal past, must avenge the death of his wife and protect his pups from the inherent darkness of nature and the cold cruelness of the looming winter.”

As you can tell, Irvin has a laid-back, wordy writing style. Considering the rural backwoods setting, and the animal cast – Duchess, the old hedgehog who runs the General Store, Roderick rabbit with his 26 children (he’s almost immediately killed), Gil the argumentative catfish, Maurice the sly raccoon, head of the Rubbish Heap gang, Billiam Badger the officious town bureaucrat (“I’m the elected official of the Woods […]”), Nutbrown Squirrel the matronly schoolteacher, Ted and Helen Pig, Hugo and Mol Otter, Hank and Myrtle Tortoise, and many more, Ragged at times seems more like Walt Kelly’s swamp community in Pogo. But then:

“Old Brown [a bear] burst from the river, paws outstretched for Cal, who was tense and ready this time, yet Old Brown’s reach was too long and he snatched Cal by his coat as he tried to back away, popping a button loose, wrenching him to the river’s edge, face-to-face. As Old Brown pulled him in, Cal ripped the pistol from his pocket, pulled back the hammer and pressed it into the side of the bear’s skull. The rivals snarled, bared their sharp teeth with clenched jaws.” (p. 21)

Calvin’s wife Winifred has gone away from the Woods. Cal pretends that she’s just on a trip, but he knows that she has been bitten and given an incurable and horrific disease (rabies is hinted at). She has left in secrecy to die before she can give it to anyone else, especially to Franklin and Gus, her and Cal’s rambunctious young pups. Cal is faced with having to raise them as a single father while finding out who or what bit Winifred and avenging her. Plenty of ominous things happen:

“Something round hurtled toward Cal’s left. It rebounded off the side of the house and landed on the porch with a wet thunk. He crouched down to examine the object. It appeared roughly round at first, like an under-inflated leather ball, but when he poked at it with a paw he knew otherwise, and he took a step back from the threat. A small severed head lay on its side. It had been expertly skinned, leaving it devoid of features except for the vacant eyes, which thankfully stared away from Cal at the porch floor, for he almost instantly recognized them.” (p. 56)

There is suspense:

“Cal heard a cry overhead and opened his eyes, startled to catch a glimpse of a broad-winged hawk circling nearby, its head cocked to the side, one eye on the ground. Cal quickly glanced at his surroundings – all naked trees and decaying leaves. Nothing thick enough to hide behind, or layered to burrow under. Then, up ahead he spotted a squat cluster of evergreens, improbably punching out from the base of a short cliff. Beside them, a large oak had fallen, uprooting its base of dirt and roots and creating a narrow tunnel between it, the evergreens, and the cliff face. Cal ducked to stay low and ran forward, hoping his timing was good as he slid over a floor of pine needles and took cover underneath the evergreens. He looked up through the branches and tried to get a bead on the hawk, but the view was obscured. He’d have to expose himself to the sky to see. His mouth ran dry. Trapped.” (p. 103)

And violence:

“At some point, a well-intentioned animal had cut a burlap sack into a sheet and laid it over the body. Unfortunately, gore had soaked through the makeshift cover in several spots, forming a thick glue-like adhesive, and forcing Cal to place a paw on [spoiler’s] shoulder to hold the body down and peel it off. Immediately he understood why others felt ill at the sight of her. [spoiler] was a mess – her throat ravaged, small bites had torn chunks from her arms, her apron ripped away, the contents of her insides splayed about, as if something had rooted around, unable to find what they were looking for despite having full access. Whoever – whatever – had attacked her had been out of control. Or had wanted to appear that way…” (pgs. 179-180)

Ragged (cover by Matthew Revert) is compared here to the movie Fargo, to The Wind in the Willows, to Watership Down, to Pogo, to Roald Dahl/Wes Anderson, and more. It’s its own thing. Read it for a grisly murder mystery. With cute funny animals.

Fred Patten

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