It was supposed to be another normal day at work. But when Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into her family’s taxidermy shop, she discovers that her father has killed himself on the very slab that they do their jobs on every day.
The scene is a fittingly grotesque and unexpected opener for Mostly Dead Things, a morbid, inventive and darkly funny new novel by fiction writer and essayist Kristen Arnett.
What follows is an engrossing exploration of grief, love and family, as the Mortons try to pick up the pieces after the death of their patriarch. Jessa throws herself into her work, taking over the taxidermy business and longing to make her father proud—even posthumously. Her mother, Libby, takes to creating “art” that includes posing the shop’s taxidermy animals in sexually explicit positions, and the results are both hilarious and stomach-twisting. (One particular work features a photo of Libby’s deceased husband and a stuffed boar.)
Meanwhile, Jessa’s brother Milo essentially checks out of his life, struggling to care for himself and his children. He’s also still reeling from the sudden departure of his ex-wife, Brynn, even though she left years earlier.
To make things even more complicated, Brynn was also the love of Jessa’s life. Arnett gives readers the sense that, as much as Jessa wants to move on from Brynn, something is holding her back, whether it’s a sense of commitment to her family and hometown or a fear of being vulnerable—especially as a queer woman in the deep south. Love, she says, “was the steady burn of acid indigestion. Love was a punch in the gut that ruptured your spleen. Love was a broken telephone that refused to dial out.” Her longing for connection is deeply vulnerable and intensely relatable.
While it’s different thematically and tonally from Lauren Groff’s excellent essay collection Florida, Mostly Dead Things captures the essence of the Sunshine State through the eyes of Jessa. Arnett, who is a queer librarian from Orlando, debuted her first collection of short stories, Felt in the Jaw, at a local 7-Eleven (the unconventional book party was covered by The New York Times). Like Groff, she writes about Florida with equal parts adoration and curiosity. In Mostly Dead Things, she describes the atmosphere as “swampy,” but doesn’t seem to want to be anywhere else. “As a writer and a person who loves Orlando, I’m trying to capture memory and a feeling of nostalgia of place,” Arnett told the Orlando Sentinel. “The fact that people don’t keep that, that there’s a collective amnesia about why we’re here, is so fascinating to me.”
As a reader, oscillating between empathizing with Jessa’s overwhelming grief and laughing at Libby’s absurdist art is a lot like being on a roller coaster at Disney (in Florida, of course). But not “It’s a Small World.” It’s definitely one of those rides you want to take again and again.