True tragedy holds us with its prose, making it safe to fall in love with the characters even when we know their fate. We discover the personalities within ourselves, so in a way, they live on. Tragedy, according to Nietzsche, describes the genre as catharsis: joy seeping from walls of pain. Small Animals Caught in Traps by C. B. Bernard, published in April of 2023 by Blackstone Publishing, is a toothed, unrelenting story that holds and doesn’t let go: a tragedy in the purest sense.
For all the human qualities illuminated in tragedy, Bernard is wise to entwine the animal within his narrative, as if to include their plight with that of humans. This strategy restores the genre to its original meaning, tragos means “a goat cry” in Greek. And while it is unclear the exact historical purpose of the term, certainly, animals, like goats, knit to human society seem to hold our darknesses, unable to be either human, or their wild ancestors, leaving them in constant state of miscommunication. This misalignment of identity is at the core of the book.
Lewis Yaw grew up with an abusive father with whom he would fight regularly as a child. While his skill made him a talented boxer, the abuse does not heal over time. He struggles with what it means to be a man: “[Yaw] always held his feelings like a tree holds sap, leaking them out only when the bark is cut.” He escaped Massachusetts with a fiancée and some hope for a new life, creating a code for himself brought together by various Asian ideologies. Everything changes when they have a daughter when he had hoped for a son in a raging storm. She is called Gray, a color of opacity, a cloud. The reader is primed for hope. A daughter may save a man who despises himself. Yaw tries.
The flaws in the book exist despite the stunning language and imagery which acts as a stage for the unfortunate ordeal. The characters are unreal and their actions hyperbolized. Yet Bernard’s prose achieves a profound illustration of beauty beside the grotesque. It feels ambitious enough to create the world: the sensation of a freezing stream, how the campsite smells just before the characters’ small world crumbles: “Gray’s [sleeping bag] feels like a cocoon, a pleasant blend of confinement and comfort that smells of camp smoke, sweat and fish, pine and hemlock and pollen. It smells like life itself.”
A small animal caught in a trap is a horrible and mundane scene. Wildlife is killed for commerce or because they are perceived as pests. Bernard effectively proposes the fatal tragedy of a world dictated only by humans, and more specifically, by patriarchy. Yet, the animals in this book are not wild. A bouquet of flowers remains nameless. The natural elements overgrown into the daily life of these individuals act only as representations of themselves. They are trapped, killed, or surviving in Yaw’s pain. The old dog is pushed to exhaustion regularly on runs with Yaw. All we ever see of a black bear are its parts after it has died. Bernard does not sit long with death, and he only addresses the capturing of wildness, but not wildness itself. He layers death and wildness throughout the book, making them both cheap.
Disappointment, Oregon seems to have been a self-conscious decision Bernard addresses as an “apotronym. A name suited to its owner.” Indeed, Bernard uses this device many times throughout the book underscoring the parablistic qualities of the tale. The Book of Job didn’t need to be mentioned for the spirit of it to seize. At one point Yaw believed he was starting a new life, but Disappointment is just as much a trap as anywhere. The exact misplacement of a dream: dis-appointment. Yaw’s selfmade code, in the fatal end, does not hold up after his wife dies and a series of brutal turns brings him to a dubious end. There is something larger, some godly force, perhaps, in the beaten dog that pees on him when all is said and done.
The story, more than anything, is a parable. Bernard is keen to identify the struggle from the trap of toxic masculinity through Yaw’s anti-heroism. But no one lays boundaries for him and the bullish men in the narrative. We move from Yaw’s first person narrative to that of Gray as the first half of the book falls to the second. Mother, daughter, the people who make up the fly shop known as the Vatican, lack complexity to oppose Lewis’s destructive actions. Yaw’s wife is a foil to make him a better man, and the villain’s character is named “Marion” and made fun of for it. Femininity is tacitly ignored, its power undermined. Bernard may have benefited to consider femininity more seriously within Yaw himself, the “soft animal” as referenced in Mary Oliver’s poem, and quietly being stifled in the narrative are not the feminine, but the absence of childhood. After his wife’s death, Lewis becomes catatonic and Bernard shuts his narrative voice off. The decision to move so abruptly into Gray’s point of view, a character of resilience, courage, all the gumption of a warrior, but not the PTSD, is too easy. Bernard does not do the reader justice to throw Yaw out, to not experience that vibrancy and surreality of his pain. I wanted to go there, if only for a bit longer.
The end of the book is a whirlpool, death taking nearly every character with it. Indeed, if there is a god in this book like that of Job, it is the water, whether it be through rain, storms, or the ever present river cutting through land and the prose, defining each character’s day-to-day, and ultimately consuming all. Rivers, of course, are highways for the natural world. If the rest of the animals and wildlife are only representations, impotent, victims in this book, the water is not. And Gray, the girl who comes from the clouds, is perhaps a raincloud herself, might indeed be hope. She leaves Oregon, a land which “rips itself apart” to find the past and evade the trap she has been orbiting.
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: April 4, 2023
Reviewed by Irene Lyla Lee