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Winter/Spring 2020

James Brubaker's The Taxidermist's Catalog - A Review

Brooke Turner

 

If you are a Gen-Xer like myself, opening up The Taxidermist’s Catalog is like opening a time portal to the days of your youth. I couldn’t help but linger in the novel, remembering Sunday evenings watching the X-Files or those long vacations in the minivan where my parents refused to play anything but Bob Dylan or The Who. Folk Music and UFOs don’t seem to be a likely combination for one novel, but James Brubaker weaves them together brilliantly when he introduces two characters: an aging Daniel Morus and an eighteen-year-old Fox Mulder. Yes, that’s what I said, Fox Mulder, the infamous X-Files FBI agent whom the young character is named after. While Daniel is a washed-up music journalist with a longstanding obsession with the disappearance of folk musician, Jim Toop, Fox is a fledgling computer hacker and conspiracy theorist who joins Daniel in his quest to uncover the mysterious vanishing. The story is ultimately about truth, however, and the human capacity to believe that truth is only what we want and even need it to be.

The story is rife with unreliable narrators and this somehow prompts the reader to charge ahead on our own quest for truth. I found myself experiencing much of what Daniel and Fox experience, hoping for a particular outcome only to discover that I too needed the story to end in a way that filled some kind of emotional vacancy. I wanted the characters to receive what they needed from the narrative because I needed to see them receive it, as well. The strength of this novel is in the strangely structured six sections which are told by three different narrators. This structure is important to the story because it isolates the characters in their individual truths and illustrates the disconnection we have when we cling so heavily to our own narratives.

The novel begins with Daniel sharing his first-person account: his disillusionment, his regret, and even his self-hatred. As Daniel’s depression peaks and he begins pondering methods of suicide and then remembering that he “designed (his) living space to protect (himself),” he also acknowledges why he “agreed to investigate” the surfaced recording of Toop’s unreleased album—“these things keep me alive,” he says. He has lived vicariously through Toop’s romance with the cryptic “Angela” found in the lyrics of his music, but this is largely because of Daniel’s own failed marriages and lost loves. He needs to find Angela and Jim Toop still in love at the end of the story. It is the only thing he has to live for anymore. But when childless Daniel meets fatherless 18-year-old Fox, something almost paternal; something he didn’t know he needed creates an energy in him as they attempt to uncover the truth together.

With a mentally ill single mother, who introduced her son to an X Files obsession, Fox doesn’t even consider the existence of his own father when the novel begins. Instead, he survives on helpings of conspiracy theories about his own birth, inhabiting the story of X-Files character, Agent Scully, who mysteriously gives birth to a baby many assume to have been fathered by aliens and even “might have been the result of a mutation in (his) mother allowing her to reproduce asexually, like an earthworm.” His own personal narrative is shaken, however, when his mother emerges from a cloud of isolation and shares with her son the true nature of his conception. Fox now feels a need to find his father and whatever truth is uncovered, he insists on it being the truth he himself needs; a truth he never knew he wanted until now.

The story then moves into a more experimental path with a series of interviews with William Toop, the folk singer’s father. This interview, conducted by Daniel Morus, is narrated with large paragraphs of Daniel’s footnotes which at times can be tedious to read but lend dimension and context to the conversation. William Toop is our most unreliable narrator. He is interviewed while inebriated and contradicts himself many times. Even when we believe he shares the information Daniel is hoping for, he is too drunk, too sad for us to take seriously. Even while he denies that his son is alive after Daniel tells William he is traveling to New Mexico where Jim was last spotted, the very last line spoken by William is a moment of vulnerability and disclosure: “When you get to New Mexico, Mr. Morus—say hello to my son for me.” Even after reading the novel, the statement still hangs in the air.

Brubaker then daringly writes in omniscient third person as he gives a birdseye view of the town of Truth or Consequences where the culmination of the story takes place. With all of the moving parts of this section of the story, an omniscient third-person narrator is the only kind that will work, and Brubaker accomplishes this masterfully. In this section of the novel, an entire community has lived inside of a lie for so long, they no longer know what the truth is. Even the name of the town is representative of a burlesque metaphor; one that illustrates the resulting chaos of long-term deception. The camera of the narrator focuses on and then pans out again, back and forth, narrowing on specific details of its disruptive visitors and then omitting details we only hope we will discover later.

Sadly, there is an open-endedness to the last section--the final essays of Daniel Morus’s investigative journalism--and we are left to imagine our own truth just as the characters are left to imagine theirs. But the individual certainty of Daniel and Fox allow the reader to conclude something not only about their own hopes for the whereabouts of Jim Toop, but they allow us to examine and then rewrite our pasts, replacing the fulfillment of these character’s needs for our own, if at least temporarily.