The difficulty with a great number of books that attempt to catalog or illuminate a given industry or segment of our society is that they often end up opening more threads than they close, so we read to learn or uncover and yet end up with a bigger reading list of equally interesting secondary sources. But Dave Madden’s The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy avoids this pitfall by selecting the subject of taxidermy, a practice with enough of a lifespan to tell an engaging story and yet such a tight cultural focus that it can be sutured completely (and entertainingly) in a single, well-written book.

The Authentic Animal is a gem. And though certainly Dave Madden’s debut non-fiction title should become an instant classic in the world of taxidermy, cataloguing its breadth from its mythically tinged beginnings through its modern practices, even the non-taxidermist will find intrigue and interest in the story of this unusual yet absorbing business. Madden himself openly admits his own lack of hunting experience or possession of ‘stuffed animals’ and yet explains how quickly he turned into an infatuated researcher of this special business:

“I’m not the typical person to fall in love with taxidermy, if such a person exists, and yet that’s exactly what’s happened. I’ve fallen in a kind of obsessive, curious love with this thing, and as a result I’ve begun to feel if not closer to animals then at least as though animals have begun at least to feel closer to me. How this all happened is what I’ve written this book to find out.”

From this personal foundation, Madden illuminates the roots of taxidermy, bringing the reader through its first books, schools, and techniques, and often attending conferences or other regional taxidermy events in order to understand and relate back to the reader both the act of taxidermy and the people who profess, study, and participate in it. From an examination of novice taxidermists “looking to change the trajectories of their lives” by learning a new skill, to the veteran taxidermists who are viewed as “the ghost-writer, taking the raw materials of an experience and fashioning it, through technique, into something legible”, The Authentic Animal covers each level of this historic job with solid writing and wit. But it doesn’t end there – Madden also brings us forward to a time of freeze-drying pets as an alternative to taxidermy and the Body Worlds exhibits, where millions flock to see those plasticized human bodies, strangely posed much as any animal, attempting to recreate life behind life, against a painted background. And it is at this point that it becomes clear that The Authentic Animal is in search of much more than a simple cataloging of a bizarre career, that it has deeper issues to address:

“Because while we may kill animals for all kinds of bullshit reasons, we kill them for honorable ones, too, and then we make art out of it. We make our schoolkids read The Yearling and Old Yeller, and we use this art to remember the animal. And behind each lick of those literary triggers was a young heart bursting with love. A taxidermized animal is a remembered animal, a memorialized animals, and something memorialized is something loved. Open your heart. We are not animals, we are given them.”

Dave Madden leaves no connection buried in the Authentic Animal‘s exploration of taxidermy, touching on Edward Gein’s grave-robbing, MTV’s Jackass obtaining a quote for stuffing a yet-living grandmother, and even that invented ‘Jackalope’ hanging on so many motel and Wyoming diner walls, constantly taunting us with their fur and antlers, their beaded eyes and faux-glossy nostrils. And in this mingling of connections, Madden has made a non-fiction book that sings – bringing in facets of pop-culture to taxidermy, mixing serious research with cleverly recounted stories, and unearthing taxidermy’s history while remembering that even non-fiction must tell a story, and that the story must be driven, and that if we are lucky, as with are with The Authentic Animal, that story will be moving and heartfelt, and will somehow tell us something new about ourselves.

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J. A. TYLER is the author of Colony Collapse, available now from Lazy Fascist Press. His recent work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Redivider, Cream City Review, Diagram, Fairy Tale Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and New York Tyrant. He also runs Mud Luscious Press.

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