Setting the Family Free, Novel, Apprentice House, 2019, $27.99, 310 pages, ISBN: 978-1627202169
Setting the Family Free by Eric D. Goodman, Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Told from a variety of perspectives and in a mix of narrative forms, Eric D. Goodman’s new novel is the story of one man’s obsession with exotic animals – lions and tigers and leopards, cougars, bears, wolverines and more, even a kimodo dragon – and explores the complex relationship between men and animals, civilization and nature. At the center of the plot is the animals’ release from captivity outside Chillicothe, a small town in southeast Ohio about sixty miles south of Columbus, and the havoc their escape causes.
Their owner, an eccentric named Sammy Johnson, has deliberately set them free after taking his own life. Hence, the title. For Sammy Johnson regards these animals as family.
But Setting the Family Free is just as much about how the story is told as it is about conflict and resolution. As the media savvy celebrity zookeeper Leland Anders suggests to Roscoe Roy, the sheriff in charge, as they are about to go out and track down the escaped animals, “You’re going to need a press conference.” When Roscoe sneers that his priority is saving people, not public relations, Leland tells him he needs to shape the narrative of the “carnage” that is about to ensue; yes, getting the animals off the street is important, “But you’ve got to get out in front of this story.”
Already there are journalists from the bigger media markets, New York (Carrie Mortimer of the Cable News and Entertainment Network) and Cleveland (Blake Hartle of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) looking to sensationalize the story, not to mention Amy Shivers from the local TV news, whose motive seems to be simply reporting the news. When it comes to Mortimer and Shivers, we often hear them speaking to a camera, with Mortimer promoting a tabloid storyline of “Chillicothe Carnage,” stoking outrage. Goodman provides excerpts from Hartle’s multi-part story about Sammy Johnson in the Plain Dealer to flesh out the details about the mysterious animal owner, who has killed himself and caused such pandemonium. Who was he, why did he do it?
Goodman also intersperses the narrative with observations in the form of quotations from a variety of “experts” (Jackson Withers from the Animal Protection Agency, for one, Dr. Minnie Fields, a Shawnee State University Psychology professor for another) and people with their own perspective on things, such as Mike Skaggs, identified as Sammy’s drinking buddy. These often sound like the people interviewed after the serial killer or the child molester is discovered living right in their neighborhood (“He seemed like just a regular guy”) – except in this case the weirdo, Sammy, is somebody who keeps a menagerie of wild animals. Indeed, as Mike observes, “The truth is just another way of framing a lie. You know?” Skaggs also tells the story of Sammy bringing his bear to the bar, a regular “bear and beer night.”
The actual story of the “carnage” – several dozen animals killed and at least half a dozen human beings, all over southern Ohio, over the course of several days – is told by a third person narrator from the perspective of various individuals, ranging from Sammy himself to his neighbors, Bobbie Anne Thompson and Mitch Henderson, the six police officials, including the Ross County sheriff Roscoe Roy, Deputy Chuck Ellison, and the former Marine sharpshooter Ketchum. Ketchum’s flashback to killing a kid in Afghanistan, when he kills one of the big cats, is truly affecting and underscores the thin line separating human from animal that is at the heart of the novel.
Other incidental characters who are the focus of the narrative and move the story along include Dustin, a man with a horse-riding business at Shawnee State Forest, and Morris Jones, Sammy’s helper who takes care of the animals when Sammy is in prison; Morris is a man who feels a real kinship with some of the critters and is mortified when they are slaughtered. Sammy’s parents and especially his ex-wife Marielle also are the focus of attention, particularly Marielle, who tells her side of the story to the newspaper reporter, Blake Hartle.
Marielle is an especially pivotal character since it may be that her leaving Sammy is the final thing that sends him around the corner. She leaves him while he is serving a prison sentence for possession of illegal guns, telling him in a note that she loves him but that living with him is impossible. She is also jealous of the animals, whom Sammy loves more than he loves her. At the end, after the dust has settled, Marielle is at the farmhouse where all of the animals had been caged – where she had lived with Sammy for thirty years – and she speculates, “If legal, she’d have considered throwing Sammy’s body in he same mass grave, just throwing one more wild, misunderstood animal corpse on the heap.” Again, what actually is the difference between furry four-legged creatures and men?
In addition to these human perspectives, Goodman also takes us inside the heads of various of the escaped animals, thus providing a kaleidoscopic viewpoint that adds up to one seamless, gripping story that’s both fast-paced disaster thriller and philosophical meditation on the intrinsic value of all living things. Quotations from Tolstoy, the Buddha, MLK and Elvis Presley, among others, on the intrinsic majesty of non-human animals underscore the moral dimension of the drama. This is a book that satisfies on many levels.
© Charles Rammelkamp and Eric D. Goodman
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing. Charles Rammelkamp once arm-wrestled Sonny Liston in a bar in East Saint Louis.
Eric D. Goodman writes in Baltimore about trains, wombs, and animals gone wild. Tracks, his novel in stories, won the Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Like him or poke him at http://www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman or www.TracksNovel.com