The one-word title of Scott Phillips‘ witty and wonder-filled new novel draws less on the phrase “in a rut” than on the second definition of that word (the second, at least according to the New Oxford American Dictionary):
noun (the rut): an annual period of sexual activity in deer and some other mammals, during which the males fight each other for access to the females.
verb ( rutted , rutting ) [ intrans. ] [often as adj. ] ( rutting) engage in such activity : a rutting stag.
Characters throughout the novel and of all ages (and at least one other species) seem to be either contemplating, offering, declining or actually engaged in a little bit of hanky-panky: Stacy Elder, suddenly spouseless and regularly meeting up with a previous ex-husband, corrupt Mayor Buddy Gallego, for pharmaceutically-enhanced extracurricular activities; Stacy’s stepson Cole, almost seventeen but looking younger, and indulging fantasies about several women, including a comely visiting biologist; Juan Stevens, the legless 60-year-old proprietor of the local restaurant, who promises the ladies an “extraordinary” experience; and even a much older woman, the crassly charming Darla Farrell, sharing vague memories of “a threesome with Rod Stewart and that other dude, what’s his fuck. You know, with the feathery hair? Sixty years or so back, just about, and my friend Tinnie blew three of the Eagles that same winter.”
Bridget McCallum, that biologist, finds herself briefly considering Juan’s offer and then musing over possibilities with Leo, Stacy Elder’s actual son, but Bridget is also busy with her studies, which include documenting other frenzied couplings: the orgiastic matings of American bullfrogs — among the last of their kind that exists without mutations, it seems.
Lest you begin to think otherwise, let me stress that despite these preoccupations, Rut is far from sex-saturated. Instead, that proclivity is just one of the many often-zany aspects of the community portrayed here: Gower, a small Rocky Mountain town somewhere in the not-too-distant future (mid-21st-century, it seems), struck down by economic blight (another rut, of sorts) but energized with an eccentric spirit. All along the edges of the story, we get hints of what this future holds in store for us. The government looms and menaces: stealthy and overzealous, threatening free speech, trying to reprogram homosexuality or other waywardness. Juan isn’t the only legless male; lost limbs and battle scars are commonplace — wounds from an unknown, unnamed conflict. Cities either exist on the “Big Grid” or back in some earlier, pre-internet wasteland. Beef and milk seem priced beyond most Americans’ pocketbook. Wine is a marketable commodity. Religious fundamentalism holds sway, with teens having to declare their religion at eighteen. Bridget is a Methodist, for example, “a bureaucratic fact rather than hard-held faith,” she reflects.
Bridget seems in many ways the central character here, but Phillips roams loosely and easily from person to person, dropping in on numerous perspectives and private moments, building a larger, more comprehensive portrait of this quirky locale. It’s a shaggy novel in many ways, driven less by plot than by its people. But each is intriguing in his or her own way. Relationships shift, secrets spill out, Bridget’s research continues — and plenty of surprises and revelations are in store for everyone. All the while, Phillips seems to be having a blast, and he delivers one to the readers as well — literally so, as various threads of the story converge toward the final pages….
Concord Free Press: Donations and More
While Rut proved a fun and provocative read, what drew me to the book initially was not just my admiration for Phillips (though his story “The Emerson, 1950” stands as one of the best I’ve read in several years) but also my interest in the work of his publisher here, Concord Free Press. A non-profit organization that bills itself as a “revolutionary experiment in generosity-based publishing,” Concord Free Press produces and distributes books free of charge — completely so: Readers don’t even have to pay shipping. What the publisher does ask of its readers is three-fold:
- Make a voluntary donation to a charity or needy individual of your choice.
- Announce that donation on the publisher’s website.
- Pass the book along to someone else — to keep the giving going.
Needless to say, this is a fascinating and provocative idea — and I’m pleased to be a small part of it by having simply ordered a book.
Rut was published in a first edition of 3,000 copies. I received copy #2071.
Last week, I made two donations, hoping to serve each of the communities that I consider home. I sent $50 to the Literacy Council of Wake County’s Project LIFT (Literacy Instruction for Families Together), a family program based in Raleigh, NC, and fostering “inter-generational learning by providing family caregivers with English language and life skills alongside their children.” Another $50 went to 826 DC, a Washington, DC-based non-profit “dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” (And I was happy to discover when I went to make that latter donation that a friend and fellow writer, Mike Scalise, is programs manager at 826 DC; obviously, he and I need to chat more.)
As for passing the book along… that is indeed the hard part. He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m planning to deliver this to Eric Anderson, one of my fellow faculty members at George Mason University. Now that it’s in print, I have to do it. I just hope he enjoys Rut half as much as I did — and finds an equally worth charity for his own donation.
Happy Thanksgiving to all! — Art Taylor