This summer, I enjoyed a grilled mutton lunch next to a Bosnian sheep meadow. I had watched my lunch trot out on its daily outings to the same meadow. Later, I had watched my friends lead the animal to a grassy plot behind their house. There was a moment of struggle, blood, then speedy death. Inevitably, it led to comparisons with the flesh I eat in Canada and the news from factory farms. Like many, I'm good at suppressing such thoughts. Then Don LePan's novel turned up on my doorstep.
It's the near future. Near enough that there are still things like rusty Hondas belonging to inner-city moms who wonder how they'll keep the kids fed, let alone a hungry pet. Tammy has four children and one mongrel: Sam. Sam is not a dog. In this world, mongrels form a subset of humans. Some families are torn about what to do with their mongrel kids. Sam, luckier than some, ate people food at a people table until he became too much of an embarrassment. Now, he eats pet food by himself in a corner of the kitchen. His food may even contain ground-up mongrel - but moms try not to think about that. The mongrel content in Sam's food is the result of a global shortage of protein, because all the cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other farmed creatures are extinct.
Sam looks and thinks like a human (we observe sometimes through his viewpoint), but he can't speak, or care for himself to the usual human standard. He can seem, even to his own family, more animal than person. In LePan's dystopic allegory, he ranks well below even Aldous Huxley's menial Epsilons in value and utility. Where compassion for mongrels still hangs on is in the moms, but we can predict who gets sacrificed in a crisis.
Tammy, her household economy in free fall, is forced to make a terrible choice: Keep Sam and jeopardize her family's health and future, or place him elsewhere. With overdue rent bearing down on her, she and the kids skip town early one morning, leaving Sam wrapped in blankets at the door of well-to-do neighbours.
Sam's story alternates with extensive backstory from his brother Broderick, who offers the "big picture" of how the world has come to such a pass. The scenario is nightmarish. As the 21st century advanced, mongrel births, blamed on pollution, mushroomed to one out of five. With food animals extinct from rampant drug dosing and filth-induced epidemics, an orchestrated ethical shift led to mongrels being redefined as "chattels" - edible property. Technology and commerce exploited the new and stable protein source. Unable to reproduce, most food mongrels were cloned. The residue were, are, creatures like Sam: kids with mothers, yet a legal hair's breadth from becoming meat.
This is an angry book, its characters always in service to the anguished message. As an analysis of the human capacity to reconcile sentiment with savagery, it's spot on: psychologically incisive, admirably disquieting. Still, the novel's challenges are not always productive. Broderick himself anticipates readers' response: "I have no doubt spent far too long on the history and the economics … when I know that what many of you are interested in is the narrative of individual lives."
He's right. Part of the bog-down is the frequent footnotes, up to a half-page long, filled with textbook-ish historical detail, cultural analysis, market tracking and so on. The book's fictional meat (or tofu) is crowded by editorial starch.
Animals will leave some readers lagging, but they should persist. LePan may openly grind his axe, but what makes the book powerful is just how keenly that axe cuts through our ethical hypocrisy.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.