Dubbed by no less an authority than Megan Abbott as "the Queen of Noir," Vicki Hendricks specializes in violent characters and bleak settings. Her new novel, Fur People, is almost — almost — a departure from this and might even veer slightly into the fuzzy feelgood world of chick lit.
Where characters like Sherri in Miami Purity or Ramona in Iguana Love or Renata in Cruel Poetry are hard–edged, unsentimental femmes fatales, with whom you associate at your own risk, the women in Fur People are idealistic do-gooders with noble, humanitarian impulses — but with whom you still associate at your own risk! Not for fear of getting shot or killed, but like all Hendricks' characters, these women exist outside the mainstream.
Sunny Lytle, the main protagonist, is described as a "hoarder": she never saw an animal she could turn away. As the novel starts, she is being evicted from her apartment in Louisville by her landlord when he comes to collect the rent, horrified by all the animals she keeps — cats, dogs, gerbils — and of course all the shit and stink and fur they leave behind. Sunny is involved with Bear, an older married man who has taken her under his wing, part protégé, part lover. Bear, whose hobby is collecting and refurbishing cars, offers to let Sunny use his bus to transport her "fur family" to DeLeon Springs, Florida, where she grew up.
Thus, the plot of the story revolves round Sunny trying to keep her fur family intact. She drives the bus to an isolated area in the woods outside of town, sets up her camp, and goes about trying to find a way to make some money to support the family. She discovers it's hard work.
Sunny's high school sweetheart Jason lives in DeLeon Springs, too, unhappily married, though, to a person who likewise cares about animals. Sunny and Jason still have feelings for each other, and in fact they work at the same breakfast restaurant. Sunny also becomes involved with Buck, a schizophrenic homeless person likewise living off the grid. Add to this the lovestruck Bear, back up in Kentucky but determined to come down to Florida to "help," and you have the makings of jealousy murder, a love triangle out of control.
Only, Hendricks does not go there.
Instead, we watch Sunny struggle, using all of her resources but never quite able to turn the corner. She's taken on way more than any person can handle.
As in all of Hendricks' novels, the characters are all eccentrics, living on the fringle of society, if not completely outside it. Buck, Sunny's lover, is obsessed with the "Magnetoids," some fuzzy, ill-defined alien life force that lives in the thunderclouds and who he is convinced are out to "get" him. Sunny's obsession with being kind to animals also becomes pathological as the story goes on. Take this example when Sunny is talking with Rita McKenna, the de-licensed veterinarian who befriends her. Rita swats a mosquito that is sucking blood from her arm.
Sunny cringed. "Ouch!
"Bugs love me."
"I meant, poor mosquito."
Rita met her eyes. Sunny was dead serious. This was a level of empathy way beyond anything she could imagine.
Or again, when she's just getting to know Buck, and he offers her a potato chip.
"I know it sounds silly, but these were living potatoes once upon a time, like most
everything we eat. I eat as little as I can."
"You don't eat vegetables or meat? What does that leave?"
"I eat vegetables — fruit and grains, too — but I feel bad."
But without spoiling the book, the story all eventually ends well, though not as one might have predicted. Hendricks keeps you guessing all along, and while at times the reader gets very frustrated with Sunny, even she resolves her personal issues by the end of the story. People die but their deaths are not the result of violent criminal acts.
Hendricks writes with authoritative detail about the Florida landscape, the flora and the fauna, bringing it alive in all its fecund, humid, insect-y detail. Indeed, it's almost like another character. Just as Sunny and Buck struggle against the corruption of civilization, they must contend with nature as well, which is no less amoral.
While the characters and events in Fur People may not be as violent or tragic as the characters in some of Hendricks' previous novels, there is still more than a hint of noir to spice it up. Sunny's father, the town drunk, who abused her when she was young, is the main example of this. As the crime/science fiction writer Maxin Jakubowski wrote in The Guardian, "No one writes better about white trash gone bad." Lytle, Sunny's father, is a mess. Whenever he shows up in the story he causes the reader's fur to stick up!
Bottom line, Fur People is an entertaining read that keeps you turning the pages until the very end.