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War Against the Animals: A Novel Hardcover – August 27, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Russell (The Coming Storm, etc.) eloquently explores the divide between gay and straight culture in his latest novel, a thoughtful, provocative study of an attraction that develops between an upscale, retired garden designer who is HIV-positive and a young redneck in a fast-changing upstate New York community. Cameron Barnes is the Manhattan transplant who thinks his love life is over after surviving the barrage of illnesses that come with full-blown AIDS, but Barnes's quiet, idyllic life in Stone Hollow is disrupted when he hires a pair of young brothers, Kyle and Jesse Vanderhof, to fix his dilapidated barn. Initially, Barnes has little contact with the brothers, but a strange attraction slowly develops between the former landscaper and Jesse, who is more sensitive and open-minded than his crude older brother. The backdrop for the romance is a struggle to control the town and its values, filtered through the prism of a mayoral election in which the leader of the powerful Vanderhof clan, Roy, battles a close friend of Cameron's named Max Greenblatt, who represents the interests of the rapidly growing liberal gay community. Russell is a patient, masterful narrator, dexterously alternating scenes featuring Cameron and his gay friends, Jesse grappling with his sexuality and Jesse's controlling brother's scheme to extract money from Cameron. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have been a clumsy, obvious book, but Russell's compassionate, insightful prose illuminates the differences that help define us under the umbrella of community as well as the sparks that fly when boundaries are violated.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
If confusion over sexual identity, family roles, community allegiances, and future ambitions form the heart of Russell's accomplished and haunting novel of one young man's coming-of-age, an older man's reflection on past relationships and acceptance of an uncertain future constitutes its soul. In Jesse Vanderhof, Russell portrays a bewildered youth, adrift and susceptible to both the influences of his domineering, redneck older brother, Kyle, and the open friendship and unexpected attentions of Cameron Barnes. Cameron, whose own AIDS is in remission, mourns the loss of former friends and lovers as he settles into a circumspect life in a quiet country village. Hiring Jesse and Kyle to help renovate his property, Cameron finds himself powerfully drawn to Jesse and justifiably wary of Kyle's menacing control of his younger brother. At Kyle's devious insistence, Jesse cultivates Cameron's patronage, yet when the relationship evolves beyond a professional level, both Kyle's and Jesse's worlds unravel in unexpected ways. With uncommon sensitivity, grace and compassion, Russell charts a richly hypnotic voyage of discovery. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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But the main characters in "War" - Cameron Barnes and Jesse Vanderhof - are totally three dimensional. Cameron, back from near death from AIDS and doing quite well, thank you, illustrates the contradictions inherent in a person whose death may be imminent yet whose drug cocktail and life style give him hope of continuing on for some time. The "star," however, is young Jesse, who is firmly planted in the redneck tradition and way of life, but who nevertheless doesn't quite fit in. He vacillates between being a true representative of the redneck life style and experiencing the agony of wanting something else - something he can't quite perceive clearly but which is always grating on his persona, as reflected in his wildly fluctuating behaviors. While in some ways Jesse is not the most likable person, in other ways he breaks your heart as he struggles to find his true path in life.
The supporting characters are also extraordinary - from Kyle, Jesse's older brother, who seems to represent most of the worst characteristics of the redneck stereotype, to Cameron's cultured gay friends, refugees from the Big Apple.
The story is plausible and intriguing. The town is teeter-tottering between maintaining extraordinarily long-standing traditional values (rigidly enforced by people with authoritarian views of what life should be like) and adjusting to the more liberal views of the increasing number of gay NYC expatriates. While the rednecks wear most of the black hats, the gays are not all robed totally in white. Other than Jesse's saga, the most compelling aspect of the book is that the reader doesn't really know what will happen next and how things will turn out. That to me is the sign of an outstanding novel. The development is unpredictable - just like life.
Cameron Barnes 'escapes' the choke of Manhattan in moving to Stone Hollow in upstate New York, leaving behind the memories of a love lost to AIDS, and starting life over with a new love that gradually dissolves into transcience. Yet in the meantime (recovering from brushes with death from his own AIDS) he has establishes himself as a fine landscape architect, encourages friends from New York to move to his Arcadia, and begins an encounter with a pair of homespun brothers whom he hires for a summer's work only to discover that the Redneck attitude of the town extends to their mentality. Cameron's past introduction to love is revealed through gently drawn flashbacks and thoughts and it is the slow discovery of similarities that results in his aligning with one of the brothers in a journey towards the younger's (Jesse's) self discovery. The words Russsell employs are never squandered: The title of the book, WAR WITH THE ANIMALS, refers not only to Cameron's struggle in the smalltown mentality of homophobia, but also with the demons of his virus, his past experiences and his present challenges. Russell sublety divides the book into sections: "Et in Arcadia Ego" (and into paradise I go), "The Chaos Garden" ( a descriptor of his work project and his landscape), "Gethsemane" (or agony in the garden before Christ's betrayal), and "Under the Shadow". These subtitles suggest the delicacy of Russell's prose and style.
Technically, Russell draws characters that are not only three dimensional, but who, like all humans, have polarities of good and evil that round out their personalites. No one is thoroughly hateful despite some of their atrocious behaviors, and no one is without character flaws no matter how sincere they attempt to pretend. WAR AGAINST THE ANIMALS (note: this is not entitled war "with" the animals) is a highly successful book, one that has much to say about how we choose to lead our lives and the choices we make being mindful of the consequences. Cameron's summer results in a leaping change in the lives of nearly everyone we have met in this story. It is a brave book, a well-conceived story, and an entertaining read. Paul Russell has kept his promise as to his talent potential. I wait for the next novel!
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but "War Against the Animals" is such a disappointment!Read more