Eating Mammals

by John Barlow
ISBN: 0060591757

The book’s title comes from the first of the three novellas in it. Curiously, fewer mammals are eaten in “Eating Mammals” than in the other two stories.

Furniture gets eaten; a brass plaque gets eaten; a bankrupting gross of oysters gets eaten. “Eating Mammals” is about The Great Michael ‘Cast Iron’ Mulligan, and the man who at first assists him and then launches his own career as Captain Gusto. (One of those mammals is a dead dog, though, so it does have the most unexpected eaten mammal.) The second and longest story is about a cat with wings. Born to a working cat — a ratter — in a workhouse, some people think it is evil while others look at it and see not an abomination, but dollar signs. There is sex, madness, kidnapping, gypsies, violence, a trial, and more madness — and you never get to see the cat fly, though it does stretch its wings a few times, and there are tantalizing glimpses of how it thinks. The third story mostly about pork pies, though there are questions about morality and engineering thrown in, along with far too many donkeys for a wedding day.

All three tales happen in a quaint past, and all three are, as supposedly revealed in an afterword, based on true stories. The first was inspired in part by present-day bizarre eating feats — a Frenchman ate an Apple computer and an airplane. The unlikely winged cat of “The Possession of Thomas-Bessie” was an old family story. “The Donkey Wedding at Gomersal” took shape from conversations stemming from a book on the history of Gomersal. (A village in England I had never heard of before, and I suspect that is half the point.) Barlow likes to spin out his stories, and he clearly loves to play with the Victorian flourishes. This means he can go on a bit too long past his point — particulary in the last story — and it did make me wonder if these really should have been short stories instead of novella-sized tales. I also have to confess the West Yorkshire dialect he thanks a professor for helping him with was a bit too much for me.

If you don’t mind a bit of meandering with your English accents and sideshow festivities, give Eating Mammals a try; it makes for good rainy day spent on the couch reading.

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