Heavy Petting

Reviewed by Caroline Hsu
Sunday, December 25, 2005


Tales of Modern Romance

By Scott Bradfield

Carroll & Graf. 213 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Animals have important lessons to teach us about nature and the simple joys of life. Or do they? If they were afforded the social mobility, credit and literary aspirations of humans, perhaps they'd try their paws at Internet dating, too -- or worse, follow the path of Sammy the Duck, a bitter alcoholic poet teaching at a New England College and trying desperately to finish his second book of verse.

Like Aesop for a multicultural age, Scott Bradfield plumbs these muddled anthropomorphic depths in Hot Animal Love . Bradfield, the author of The History of Luminous Motion and the Orwellian Animal Planet , is a master chronicler of the absurdity, emptiness and beauty that riddle modern life. With this collection, he continues his meditation on rudderless humans and only slightly less ambivalent talking animals. These tales read like a tragicomic romp through society's most sensitive subjects, including the inescapability of mortality and the imprecision of language.

In a subtle racial parable, Sammy the Duck meets what we can only imagine is a gruesome end after unwisely wandering the streets of Singapore. He believes that the copy of Rilke he carries under his wing might let him pass as an intellectual in a human world that sees duck as an entree.

The characters in the people-only stories are less accessible than the animals. Bradfield's women, especially, are enraged and disassociated. In "Queen of Apocalypse," Harriet, a self-mutilator, connects with her long-deadened emotions through the pain of childbirth. Bradfield does better with a lighter touch. He delivers more incisive commentary on the disconnect of modern life when two characters visit an al fresco coffee bar that provides the sophistication of a European outdoor caf in an indoor mall.

Like most academics, Bradfield, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, cannot resist poking fun at his milieu. Quips on "the cosmic Blakean nature of being a, you know, a duck" probably go over well with core readers of literary animal fiction, whoever they might be, but sometimes he comes uncomfortably close to being just flip. Bradfield is at his weakest when he offers glib cultural commentary at the expense of developed characters.

In his animal stories, Bradfield seems best able to lift above clever misanthropy and aim for something transcendent. One of the most affecting tales, "Penguins for Lunch," follows Whistling Pete, a married middle-aged penguin who seduces countless penguinettes in a promiscuous bid for immortality. Moored in his middle-class penguin life, Pete can't fly, but he's trying in all sorts of ways to lift off. Imaginative, deeply compassionate and impossible to reduce to simple parable -- what more can you ask of a penguin story?

Caroline Hsu writes for U.S. News & World Report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company