Book Review: Readings

Mark Jude Poirier

By Penny Van Horn


A Novel

by Mark Jude Poirier


Talk Miramax Books, 368 pp., $22

A year ago, Mark Jude Poirier arrived on the literary scene with a crackling and highly praised short story collection, Naked Pueblo. His first novel, Goats, should win him even more admirers. It's one of those rare novels -- one that is happy to convey a straightforward story and let the characters' relationships carry the novel along, instead of relying on flashy tricks, fancy language, and overly dramatic events.

The novel tells the dual and closely connected stories of Ellis Whitman, a 14-year-old who lives with his unstable and flaky mother, Wendy, in Tucson, and of Javier, aka Goat Man (which is what everyone calls him), who has known Wendy since she was pregnant with Ellis, and who lives in the pool house and tends to the property, raises his four temperamental goats, and smokes a good deal of pot. It was Goat Man who taught Ellis how to smoke pot, at the tender age of 11. As the novel opens, Ellis is anything but innocent as he's about to head to boarding school in Pennsylvania, to the same school that his father -- who lives back east and who Wendy calls "Fucker Frank" -- attended. Ellis' story is like the reverse of the "innocent boy goes out into the crazy world" narrative -- here the boy is already living in the crazy world, and finds himself about to enter a strange world of discipline, structure, and maybe even purpose. Goat Man, meanwhile, remains in Arizona and attempts to carry on as usual -- tending to and occasionally trekking with the goats, cleaning the pool, maintaining the yard, and getting high. Still, changes are in store for him as well.

The novel follows these two over the course of the year, subtly charting the small changes that occur in their lives. But although the novel's story line is deceptively simple, the characters are teeming with so much life and are so damn appealing that you follow them happily, and compulsively, through these pages. Poirier deftly conveys how smart-alecky, six-foot-tall Ellis, though young, has been thrust into adult roles early in life, and how laid-back Goat Man, the adult, still has a bit of the adolescent lurking within -- and how, because of this, the two are perfect companions. The love they feel is both obvious but also safely tucked under a veneer of manly appearances. Their relationship, and how it alters over one year, is touching without being mushy.

I can't neglect to mention the wonderful goats. Poirier imbues them all with as much life and personality as he does the human characters, particularly Lance, who loves Corn Pops and who rubs his stink glands on Goat Man when he's angry, and Freida, who hates water, likes to eat plastic, and whose whiny screams sound like a human's. I don't know if real goats are as colorful as these goats are, but Poirier's creations offer a large chunk of the novel's many pleasures.

At the novel's end, which is open-ended but perfectly apt, I found myself hoping that Poirier would continue their story in future books. But no matter what he delivers next, Goats confirms Poirier's special talent and makes me eager for whatever else he has up his sleeve.

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Goats: A Novel, Mark Jude Poirier

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