Cameron Barnes, formerly of New York City, lives in a small town in upstate New York. After having nearly succumbed to AIDS, he's recently regained a measure of his health but his long-term lover has moved away and faces the daunting prospect of learning how to live with the idea of a future in mind again. As a tentative step, he hires two local young men, brothers Jesse and Kyle Vanderhof, to do some renovation work on his property.
With the depressed economy of the area, the changing population of the town in which they live and the recent death of their family, the Vanderhofs are facing hard times and tough decisions. The older of the brothers, Kyle, sees an opportunity in Cameron, pushing Jesse to befriend Cameron and take advantage of his boredom and directionlessness. Caught between the opposing worlds embodied by Cameron and Kyle, Jesse is torn by the demands of his brother, the expectations of his community and family, and his own mix of volatile, contradictory emotions towards Kyle, Cameron, and himself. Mirroring the community's own increasingly tense split between long-term residents and new arrivals, this trio moves inexorably towards crisis and potential tragedy that will transform each of their lives.
Widely praised for his deft prose and brilliant characterizations, over the past decade Paul Russell has become increasingly regarded as one of the finest contemporary American novelists. Now, with War Against the Animals, he returns with his richest, most accomplished, and most compelling novel yet.
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Paul Russell is the author of five novels - including The Coming Storm and Sea of Tranquillity - as well as The Gay 100, a work of non-fiction. His most recent novel was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award as well as the winner of the Ferro-Grumley Award. He is a professor at Vassar College and lives in upstate New York.
WAR AGAINST THE ANIMALS (Chapter 1)
He had promised to have Max and Perry over for dinner as soon as Dan was gone. Nothing elaborate, only a quiet commemoration, wake, celebration, exorcism--whatever might best describe the occasion. Thus, on a bright evening early in June, Cameron Barnes watched as his two best friends left in the world made their way across his lawn to the front porch where he stood waiting.
"Hiya, beautiful," said Max, kissing him on the lips. "I have to say, you're looking awfully well."
"And I'm feeling awfully well," Cameron allowed as Perry, in turn, embraced him, pecking him lightly on the cheek and enveloping him momentarily in sweet cologne. "In fact, I'm feeling rather extraordinary these days."
But perhaps "extraordinary" should be explained, he thought. He didn't want to alarm anyone.
"I mean," he continued, "extraordinary in a good way."
"We brought you this," Perry said, unwrapping from a soaked towel a bottle of wine. "I tried to keep it cool on the way over."
"Of course, we had to have a fight about it," Max said.
"He thought we should just bring red. I told him no, we'd stick it in a bucket of ice water and that'd keep it cold."
"Now we have water all over the backseat."
"Honey, nobody drinks red wine in the summer. Please. Summer's for white wine, gin and tonics, mint juleps..."
"You hate mint juleps," Max reminded his boyfriend.
Cameron found the sheer ordinariness of their bickering oddly pleasing. "Actually, I don't know a single southerner who likes mint juleps," he ventured, accepting from his fellow southerner the perspiring bottle and motioning both his guests indoors.
Their entrance startled a black cat crouched on the dinner table, amid plates and silverware and candlesticks. "Diva," Cameron said sternly. "What are you thinking?"
The creature paused for a second, then leapt down from the table and disappeared soundlessly into the kitchen.
"She's just living up to her name," Perry purred after her.
"Never make the mistake of adopting a female cat," Cameron said. "Unless, of course, something happens to me. Then she's all yours. Casper too, of course."
"Nothing's going to happen to you," Max said.
"Well, I want something to happen. Anyway, I should have timed all this better. I haven't cooked a dinner in so long. Everything's ready already. I hope it's not too gauche just to sit down and eat."
"Shall I open the wine?" Perry suggested. "Cameron, will you have some?"
"Of course. My doctor says I can have a drink from time to time, no problem."
"Excellent," said Perry, who did not need to know that Cameron resorted, on occasion, to Stoli and orange juice to help the pills go down.
From the kitchen Cameron brought roasted chicken, cold asparagus vinaigrette, mashed potatoes. In the old days, Dan would sometimes spend a whole day preparing a dinner for guests. He'd been a master of intricate menus: Cameron still shuddered to recall the mousselines de grenouilles. Even when it was just the two of them, Dan would commandeer the kitchen, relegating Cameron, who'd always rather enjoyed cooking, to chopping an occasional vegetable or tossing the salad.
"Lovely," said Max. "I don't think I've tasted your cooking in years. Remember our supper club way back when--you and Toby and me and Roger? God, that was a lot of fun." Max poked an asparagus spear at Perry. "Way before your time, youngster."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I missed out on most of the fun in life."
"Well, alas, in a way you did. I wouldn't have skipped the seventies for the world. Remember jug wines? God, those could give you a hangover. But that was okay. We were usually too stoned to notice. How did we ever manage to live like that?"
"I think we were much younger," Cameron told him. "And much, much stupider."
"Oh, not stupider," Max said. "I've been getting stupid ever since. I was at the very pinnacle of my intelligence around 1978. And you--you made a mean spaghetti with meatballs back in 1978, never since equaled."
"Spaghetti with meatballs. I'd never make such a thing anymore. Dan spoiled me, I guess. He took very good care of me, you know. Through everything. He richly deserves his freedom."
"You must be furious with him," Perry said.
"Not in the least. I know you won't believe me, but it's true. We had our run together, it was a good run, really, in spite of everything. If ever there was a perfect time for a parting, it's now. My T cells are way up, my viral load's practically undetectable. I couldn't have a better prognosis if I asked for one. Did I tell you I'm going back to work? I talked to Jorge, who seems delighted to have me back."
"Of course he's delighted," Max said. "He owes you everything."
"Still, I'd understand if he felt a little cramped having me around."
"Please," Perry interjected. "Have you seen what he's been doing to Chuck and Peter's garden? It looks truly hideous."
"That's coleus," Cameron told him, feeling he should defend his protégé. "It's all the rage this year."
"It's still hideous."
"I'm glad you're going back to work," Max said. "It's important to be out in the world. You've been in a stalemate way too long. You and Dan both."
"I was pretty sick there."
"Don't remind me. But now--what an extraordinary position you're in. Don't you see? This is life saying to you, 'Cameron, you thought it was over, but it's not over.' Endless Surprise. That's what life is."
"Is he always this inspirational?" Cameron asked Perry.
"There's a reason we call him Mr. Motivation Man."
"Just don't be too disappointed in the new me, okay?" Cameron told his friend. "I'm still the same middle-aged queer with AIDS and a lot of qualms about just about everything. I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm thrilled to still be on the planet. But I'm also realistic about just where things stand in my life. All I want right now is to take care of my health and, maybe, if I feel up to it, do another garden project or two before I fade gracefully into the sunset. The rest I'll take as it comes."
"That's fine. I love your gardens. I wish I could afford one. I just don't want you to set your sights too low. I want you to be proactive. It's scary, I know. But the great love of your life might very well be waiting out there for you right now. Even as we speak. You never know."
Cameron had to laugh. "I love you, Max. You never give up."
"No, I never do." Max spoke with fervor. "Remember what you said to me about Toby Vail? Back when you two first got together? You said, 'This is crazy. This is never going to happen.' And did it happen?"
"Yes. And was it crazy?"
"Well, yes, I think it probably was. But it was the high point of your life."
"It gave me AIDS."
"You don't know that for sure."
"No, I don't," Cameron admitted. "Anyway, I got over any regrets a long time ago. And, yes, you're right. Toby was the high point of my life. In spite of everything. Or, no--I should say, because of everything."
"See? And who's to say life doesn't have an even higher peak in store for you? You can't know--none of us can know, and that's my point."
Cameron was on the verge of saying something, he could never afterward remember what it was, when all at once, from the road, came the shriek of tires clutching asphalt.
"Oh my God," Perry said.
Cameron felt a spike of adrenaline--where were Casper and Diva? He always imagined the worst when it came to that treacherous stretch of road in front of his house. Leaping from the table, he tried to peer out the window, but the drapery of wisteria along the porch made it difficult to see much of anything. The whole house would come down, Dan used to warn, unless they got rid of that vine.
Max was already out on the porch. "There's a truck stopped," he said as Perry and Cameron joined him.
A gray pickup had skidded halfway onto the gravel of the road's shoulder--one of those pumped-up muscle trucks Cameron despised. Music, heavy on the bass, boomed from the cab. No casualties lay in sight, no cat or possum or deer.
"You weren't expecting anybody else for dinner, were you?" Perry wondered.
From the passenger side of the truck a young woman emerged; once free, she leaned into the open door and shouted, as if lobbing a grenade into an enemy bunker, "Fuck you!"
"Well, ouch," Max murmured as the three of them leaned out over the railing (the floor slanted; the porch was gradually pulling away from the house). "I always did think you lived on an awfully exciting road."
The young woman waited there by the car, hands on hips. Acid-washed jeans fit her like a second skin; she sported a bountiful head of strawberry-blond hair; her peach blouse had been tied off to reveal a diet-flat midriff.
The driver's door swung open and a young man climbed down. Looking across the truck's bed (the whole thing jacked up so high he could barely see over it), he ordered flatly, "Get back in the truck, Leanne."
"I don't love you anymore," Leanne informed him.
"Get back in the fucking truck."
"Go fuck yourself for me, okay?"
They hadn't the slightest idea they were being observed. They were twenty, twenty-two--desperate and clueless, Cameron thought, then reproached himself. Who was he, of all people, to think that?
"Do you want me to put you in the fucking truck myself?" the young man asked Leanne ominously. "Because I will do that."
He was not unbeautiful. His thin face tended toward gaunt, his small nose turned up appealingly, his close-cropped hair could almost pass for a military cut. He wore camouflage fatigues and a white, sleeveless T-shirt that revealed his perfectly sculpted upper arms.
With a sudden yelp Leanne turned and fled into the woods--Cameron's woods, twenty acres he and Dan had purchased some years back as a hedge against a convenience store or trailer park going in across the road. Leanne's flight caught the young man off guard; he shook his head in astonishment or disgust. He spit on the pavement. Leaving the car's engine running, the steroidal music pumping thunderously, he sprinted into the undergrowth after her.
"If he comes back dragging her by her magnificent hair, I'm going to pass out with joy," Max announced. "I adore redneck drama."
The truck sat empty and abandoned, its hazard lights flashing, the hectic message of its music unheard by any who might be able to decipher it.
A thrashing about in the underbrush heralded the couple's return. The handsome redneck grasped Leanne by the elbow and steered her roughly toward the truck. Noticing, for the first time, the three witnesses on the farmhouse porch, she yelled, a little halfheartedly, "Help. He's abducting me."
"What the fuck're you looking at?" her companion called sharply their way.
"Let's go inside," suggested Cameron, who tried to avoid incidents with the locals at all cost. He and Dan had had a couple of nasty confrontations with kids trespassing in the woods on their ATVs that he'd feared might lead to his house getting torched.
Despite his taunt, the young man didn't seem to mind an audience. He held Leanne against the truck and kissed her fiercely. "Everything's under control," he announced cockily. "Everything's just fine down here."
Leanne kicked him hard in the shin.
"Ow," he yelled. "Asshole."
"You're the asshole, asshole," she corrected him.
"That's it. In the truck." He wrenched open the door and hoisted her inside. "Stay," he ordered, then slammed the door shut.
Surprisingly, she didn't try to bolt, sitting subdued as he sauntered around to the driver's side. Had his kiss stunned her into submission? Or was this exactly what she'd wanted all along?
The pickup's engine roared full throttle, and in an impressive spray of gravel the truck shot off. He should have written down the license number, Cameron thought--just in case. But in case of what? Whose business was it, after all, what happened between consenting adults? He imagined their whole lives to be nothing but a series of such episodes--blind, passionate, satisfying. Didn't most of human existence operate at the level of dreary farce?
Though how reluctant, when faced with the alternative, one was to give any of it up.
"Heterosexuals," Max sighed. "Ain't they a riot?"
"Anybody who needs a truck that size," said Perry, "has got a tiny penis. Trust me on that one. I grew up with boys like that."
"Come," Cameron urged his friends. "Let's finish our supper."
The last of the spring peepers' sweet cacophony filled the warm air. Against the shadowy mass of trees, fireflies pulsed. His friends had gone, finally, and Cameron felt unexpectedly relieved as he sat out on his back steps and contemplated the darkness that claimed his garden.
He should have known they'd have to talk about his future without Dan. He missed Dan enormously--after eight years together, how could you not at least miss the habit of daily companionship? But at the same time, he'd felt these last weeks an exhilaration accountable only in part by the return of his health. He was grateful that Dan had been willing to speak the sorry truth about that stalemate Max, all too accurately, saw they'd wandered into. When he'd met Dan, eight years his junior, he'd been thirty-eight, recovering from a long season of grief and resigned to all sorts of things--not least among them the prospect of spending the rest of his life living in Manhattan and successfully, if rather joylessly, designing school playgrounds. Their attraction had been mutual and powerful, but the half-life of all that radiant energy had proved surprisingly brief. Still, their life together had taken him places he'd never expected. It was Dan who'd encouraged his dream of forging romantic gardens in the country rather than utilitarian pockets in the city. It was Dan who'd suggested leaving behind neighborhoods too haunted with ghosts of the recent dead. It was Dan who'd rented the car that had brought them, one winter afternoon, to the hinterlands west of the Hudson, where they'd gotten pleasantly lost among forsaken hamlets and bankrupt family farms.
How well he remembered that drive: a small river, now placid, now rushing, accompanied them as they entered a narrow valley; between the dark, scouring stream and the steep hills there remained barely room for the road and a sleepy scattering of wooden houses that coalesced into the main street of a village. They drove past a stone church, a languishing luncheonette, the red-brick Excelsior Hotel. He'd had the clearest, strangest sense that this place had been waiting for him...
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