In her first book of fiction, the 2014 story collection The Wilds, Julia Elliott established herself as a keen satirist and a visionary observer of the contemporary South. While firmly rooted in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, The Wilds also showcased Elliott’s facility for medical and technical vocabulary and her flair for postmodern subjects such as cyborg retirement facilities, the Paleo diet, and new-age cellular regeneration retreats. Feral dogs and lovelorn robots stalked its pages. The collection displayed Elliott’s panache for experimentation and her unusually deep and informed appreciation of wildness, both within her characters’ psychologies and out there in a late-capitalist environment too manipulated and compromised to really be called natural.
Elliott’s debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, expands on these same themes, and as the author notes in her acknowledgments, developed out of a story that was “too big for its britches.” Much too big, it would seem, as Romie clocks in at a beefy 378 pages, and part of the pleasure of reading this novel is watching Elliott bust the shackles of the short story. Like the vicious, outsized, genetically-modified hog that rampages on its cover, Romie is anarchic and rudely alive, and it’s never less than fun to read about Elliott’s Romie Futch, a middle-aged, male fuck-up to rank with the legacy members of this august tradition.
As the novel opens, he’s a divorced taxidermist with an unpaid mortgage—“a fortyish animal stuffer, balding and childless”—who spends most of his time with his equally stagnant bros, getting drunk and pining for his ex-wife, Helen. Solvency appears in the form of an online ad from the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, which is offering $6,000 to test subjects in a series of mental experiments. Romie descends on the Center in suburban Atlanta, where he receives mental downloads of humanities texts, basically receiving a graduate-level education in the course of six weeks. Soon, Romie and his fellow test subjects—a well-rendered group as eccentric and marginalized as you would expect—are discussing Julia Kristeva and Thomas Bernhard while sipping forbidden hooch on the side.
Purely enjoyable in their own right, the scenes at the Center allow Elliott to download some of her own prodigious literary knowledge into the mind of her Southern everyman protagonist: by the time Romie leaves the Center, he’s no longer thinking about the abandoned mallards in his fridge but planning an ambitious taxidermy installation based on the Panopticon described in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “a taxidermy diorama as elaborate as an Elizabethan masque.”
In other words, Elliott asks the very funny question of how Romie Futch will be different when he returns to his life—his sad sack, divorced, taxidermist life—after receiving a crash course in postmodernism. (Writing a novel about a taxidermist is a serious po-mo move, as well: a way to visualize the literature of exhaustion.) Romie impresses and befuddles his old friends with his new vocabulary and penchant for arcane references, but his metamorphosis, like most grad degrees in English, does not lead to emotional maturity. While he does make some effort to reconcile with Helen, his ex, who is now shacking up with a bourgeois art dabbler called Boykin, Romie’s real obsession centers on Hogzilla, the legendary monster feral hog roaming the countryside, leaving a trail of dead and maimed in its wake. He tracks mentions of Hogzilla across message boards and to the woods outside BioFutures, a sinister bioengineering outfit that may have something to do with the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience and the symptoms of Romie’s own mental damage: blackouts, voices, and creeping paranoia.
This is a loose novel about form—whether it is the mad scientists of the Center messing with the human brain, the even shadowier figures of BioFutures altering animals, or lowly Romie with his dreams of taxidermic glory. (The genesis of Romie’s world-building can be traced back to his high school sculpture class and encouragement from a hippie teacher.) One also senses Elliott, freed from the more exacting confines of the short story, exulting in the large gestures of the novel. That said, the middle section of Romie does get a little bloated and blurred—like a beer gut—losing momentum for a while before the chase homes in on Hogzilla. But Romie’s narrative voice exudes such consistent, laid-back, Lebowskian charm that it’s hard to stay frustrated for long.
Along with the sheer wit and delightful invention of this novel, there’s also an ache of nostalgia at its core and a merciless gaze at the bespoke, hopelessly hybrid, fallen world of middle age. As Romie puts it at one point, “We all become parodies of our former selves. We all end up donning cadaverous masks, withered leering versions of ourselves that fit looser upon the skull.” Considering that this is coming from a man wearing an actual hollow hog’s head to a Halloween party—in a hilarious sequence—it’s a sorrowful slice of wisdom as well. Throughout the book, Romie laments that he has lost his sense of the future, and when this comes into focus for him in the novel’s final third, we celebrate along with a character we’ve come to fully inhabit and care for.
On the strength of her first two books—and her exquisite story “Bride,” anthologized in the Best American Short Stories 2015—I’d feel pretty good about betting on Julia Elliott’s future. She is the kind of original and sharp-eyed alchemist we’ll look to for consolation as we stagger further into the twenty-first century, and the findings from her lab will be worth following for years to come.
ERIC LUNDGREN was born in Cleveland and grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he turned to reading as a survival method in the winters. He studied at Lewis & Clark College and received his MFA from the Writing Program at Washington University, where he was awarded a third-year fellowship. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Quarterly West, and The Quarterly Conversation. The Facades is his first novel. He works at a 100-year-old public library in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife Eleanor and their two cats.
The New and Improved Romie Futch. By Julia Elliott. Tin House Books, 2015.