THE JUNGLE LAW: A Novel
By Victoria Vinton
MacAdam/Cage. 303 pp. $25
Baloo the bear appears, and Bagheera the panther. Here come Kaa the snake and Shere Khan the tiger. And then there's Mowgli, of course, the boy raised by wolves.
The names are familiar -- if not from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book then from the Disney adaptation, complete with Louis Prima as king of the orangutans, swinging down to "I Wan'na Be Like You." But what may be less familiar are the circumstances in which Kipling created this children's classic -- writing the stories not from some far-flung, exotic destination but from his desk in rural Vermont, his wife's home state, to which the newly married couple had retreated in 1892 after financial difficulties abroad. Yes, Vermont: a landscape not of dense, twisting vines or banyan trees, not of howling monkeys or stampeding elephants, but of apples and blackberries, black-eyed Susans and milkweed, chickens and pigs and cows. And those pitiless winters.
In her lyrical and compelling debut novel, The Jungle Law, Victoria Vinton explores just such contrasts with often mesmerizing effect, charting a creative process that conjures the exotic from the ordinary. Kipling provides the story's start; he's a newcomer who excites and confounds the region's locals. He's otherworldly both in his background and his appearance: "a broom of a mustache and round spectacles that made his eyes seem to bulge, dressed in a pair of old knickerbockers and a broad hat like a sombrero." His wife's pinched and supercilious nature further distances them from their neighbors.
Although the Kiplings set the story in motion, 11-year-old Joe Connolly is the novel's dramatic center. The neighboring farm boy becomes the first rapt audience for the evolving jungle stories, and his family life with parents Jack and Addie -- a stern, unforgiving father and an empathetic, resourceful mother -- provides domestic crises even in simple scenes, such as "meals rigged and planted like minefields, where every act carries the risk of incitement, a spark that could cause an eruption."
The opening chapters build a resonance between Kipling and the young Connolly -- twinned wakeup scenes on an early morning in August 1892. Joe's "tendency to daydream or collect odd, useless things" reinforces his affinity with the eccentric author. Just as Kipling transports himself back into memories of other continents and climes, so does Joe escape into fantasy, "his body going about its business, his mind a million miles off, while his father sits near, unaware and unsuspecting of what he would surely deem treason." Slowly, the lines between the reality of Vermont farm life, "with its harshness and its meager rewards," and the world of the imagination begin to blur for Joe: "Now [one of Kipling's poems] rises up like a vision before him that he gratefully embraces, letting the image of rice fields and temples displace the thoughts of his father. He tries to imagine this is not some country lane but a road in ancient Burma, where just around the corner he might see a flotilla anchored in a palm-lined bay that looks across to China and the distant spires and tiers of pagodas that form the golden skyline of Mandalay."
But Jack Connolly pulls his son in other directions, which troubles his mother. "How brooding and gloomy he seems to her, so much -- too much -- like his father," and Kipling's appraisal of the elder Connolly and men like him sketches a grim future for the boy: men "bitter and stunted," men "who've let whatever virtues they once might have had fester and warp in the harsh Vermont climate like an inflamed ingrown nail." Will Joe indeed be constrained by duty, fear and fate to follow his father's path? Or will he embrace those opportunities afforded by the world of the imagination modeled by Kipling and embodied in Mowgli? To whom will Joe say, "I wan'na be like you"?
No, there's nothing like Disneyfication at work here, and The Jungle Law is far from a homey coming-of-age tale. "Storybook magic" does push flights of fancy higher -- Joe begins to imagine that he might "be harboring within him the essence and spirit of Mowgli" -- but though Joe finds himself inspired and empowered and ultimately put to the test by such reveries, the consequences steadfastly defy storybook simplicity.
On the contrary, Vinton's vision is densely textured, emotionally nuanced and, to her great credit, both clear-eyed and compassionate. Several tour-de-force episodes boast a confident, ambitious style: the sensory rich account of Kipling's wife, Carrie, giving birth to a daughter, Joe's dream-like excursion to the abandoned Brattleboro Water-Cure spa and Kipling's impassioned description of how Mowgli "let the jungle in."
Equally thrilling are more introspective moments, as the author inhabits the perspectives of each of the five main characters -- burrowing inside their desires and fears and even their darker impulses to offer not only conflicting viewpoints but also unseen connections: the woeful childhoods, for example, that Kipling and Jack Connolly have in common. Instead of emphasizing competing, irreconcilable outlooks, the various perspectives complement one another, building a richer portrait of these characters and their world, a graceful sense of humanity opening up before us.
Vermont remains a far cry from the jungle of Mowgli, Bagheera and Shere Khan, but The Jungle Law traverses both worlds with ease and shows how the Law of the Jungle, which "all the animals followed in order to live peaceably side by side, in relative good faith and order," applies to people as well. By navigating both rural living in all its hardscrabble grit and the world of the imagination in its most vibrant bloom, Vinton plumbs human yearnings for more than the everyday and probes the transformative impact that storytelling can have on a willing audience -- both the lures of literature and the perils of conflating art with life. More to the point, though, Vinton also tells a great story, reason enough to pay these Kiplings and their neighbors a call. *
Art Taylor's fiction has appeared in various publications, including the North American Review and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.