Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mike Coakley on Paul Zimmer's "Ug's Zoo" and the Death of the Animal

About six decades ago, Paul Zimmer killed a raccoon with a hose. He meant to frighten it away, not to kill it, but such things happen when you’re sixteen and scared, cleaning shit out of animal cages, “a little fucker, a diaper-headed jerk, a grab-ass idiot not knowing squatty-roo.” He writes about his job as a summer park department laborer in this past winter’s issue of The Gettysburg Review with didactic intentions, in the hopes that one single person might learn something from his story, garner a lesson.

And I suspect one might; in all stories, in every word, there is a lesson. But first, the murder itself: Zimmer had just finished cleaning the bobcat’s cage, the elephant’s, the bears’. By sixteen-year-old Zimmer’s estimation, he’d just skirted death three times. His last responsibility was the raccoon’s cage, a relatively safe and easy task—hose off the pallet and go. The raccoon latched onto his leg, beginning to climb him, so he blasted it with the frigid hose water to scare it off. Then, because perhaps the exertion of one’s will, especially at sixteen, can be addicting, empowering, he sprayed it again. And again, a third time, “for good measure,” though it had already fled from him, trembling and grumbling.

The alleged first recorded use of that term—“for good measure”—is in the biblical Book of Luke: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Is Christ talking about charity here, or judgment? Probably both. Whatever you dole out, expect to receive it, and no exceptions for burgeoning poets. In Zimmer’s retelling is the obvious guilt; though he knows restraint well enough to avoid outright self-flagellation, the regret exists in the act of retelling, in his very ability to remember after sixty-some years. How appropriate that Zimmer conjures idiom from the Bible here. What do we as a society agree upon as “sin” if not the killing of animals the way our essayist did—that overabundance of defense known more colloquially as offense?

I watched a movie this weekend in which Sam Rockwell holds a dog hostage with a flare gun. The movie was Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and lest I spoil you, I’ll say no more. Except for this: The dog does not die. I never believed he would. Rockwell says it earlier on, and we understand the film to be winking at us: The animal never dies. While this isn’t true across the board (probably not even close), the spirit of it holds. We cheer when the dog in Independence Day jumps out of the path of the barreling explosion just in time, and when Old Yeller defies our expectations by dying at Travis’s hand (not all spoilers can be avoided), the world seems suddenly all wrong. It’s a common criticism of the way moviegoers think. We’ll watch human characters get blown to hell, but please, leave Milo and Otis alone.

I’d like to believe that empathy is indeed a factor here, that our identification with the carefully wrought animal characters is what moves us when we lose them. But I wonder if it might not be a different force entirely that makes creatures sacred to us, on the page, on the big screen, and in the day-to-day—a force that doesn’t close the emotional gap between us and the animal, but expands it. Old Yeller’s works our heartstrings not because we feel with Yeller, but because we feel for him. I think back to the first lesson I remember learning about writing stories, poems, and songs—beyond the necessary schooling on grammar and craft—which came during senior year of high school, when my writing teacher explained the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentiment is earned emotion, carefully crafted and rehearsed such that we identify with our characters, while sentimentality comes without effort, by pushing universal emotion buttons—look at these neglected, mud-mottled orphans, behold these whimpering puppies. In essence, sentimentality has little to do with identification with characters, and more to do with our pity for them. Many of us protect and treasure the animal because of its status as “other.” We cannot know it, so we name it, we anthropomorphize, we assume that that without human consciousness must be defenseless, innocent.

But somehow, in “Ug’s Zoo,” Zimmer steers clear of the sentimentality that usually surrounds the death of an animal—both the wretched, sixteen-year-old Zimmer and the writer looking back. It is Ug Muskopf, Zimmer’s overseer, that laments the dead, sodden raccoon: “She just wanted to sit on your shoulder and lick your ear, and you killed her for that! Then you went tra-la-la home to your mama, and pretended that nothing had happened. That animal wasn’t just some bug for you to swat!” Zimmer himself ends the piece discussing not his feelings, not imagining the way this poor creature must have died, but with narrative restraint: “And I did run home tra-la-la to my mama, but I never told her what I had done, though when she found be huddled on the front porch, she knew I was feeling guilty about something.” And his final reflection, not explicitly about death, or guilt, or misunderstanding, or the sanctity of animals: “Sometimes it takes a long time in this world.”

Like all of us, Zimmer cannot enter the animal mind, the animal consciousness. While Ug, no doubt the superior caretaker of the two, talks intentionality—“She just wanted to sit on your shoulder and lick your ear”—Zimmer does little interrogation of the animal’s intentions and of his own. His admitted purpose in writing his essay is a net cast wide: he hopes we might “think hard about it and learn something.” Perhaps what we learn is that animal motivation can be accessed no better than our own. Perhaps this is what unites us with the animal—it is just as unknowable to us, if not more so, as we are to ourselves. Sentimentality makes it all too easy, more digestible than it should be.

Mike Coakley is a first-year fiction candidate at the University of Arizona. His work is forthcoming in the minnesota review.

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