In 1968, Don Freeman wrote a children’s story about a department-store-dwelling toy bear named Corduroy, who wears green overalls missing a button and is finally taken home by a little girl undeterred by this damage. But what happened to Corduroy when he “grew up”? Was he added to a Death List, grabbed in the middle of the night by a wolf in a red pickup, and carted off to the woods for disposal? Such is the fate of doomed stuffed animals in Mollisan Town, the setting for the decidedly adult noir novel Amberville, Swedish writer Tim Davys’s delightful debut. Davys’s Eric Bear has little in common with his wide-wale predecessor. He has been ordered by Mob boss Nicholas Dove, for whom he worked in an earlier, seedier life, to find the legendary Death List and remove Dove’s name from it. If Eric fails, his wife, Emma Rabbit, will be torn apart, and so he rounds up his motley old crew for help.
Each character in the novel is defined by his or her animal qualities: A rat runs the garbage dump, Dove’s thugs are gorillas, and a fallen poet, named Bataille, is a hyena. There are no humans in Amberville, but then there is no need, as these animals dine finely, knit sweaters, and drive cars. As one laments, “We were no more than stuffed animals. Against our will we would come to injure one another . . . and perhaps even be unfaithful.” Eric’s friends are less than charming: Sam is a violent, “drug-intoxicated homosexual prostitute gazelle,” Tom-Tom Crow is “too stupid to even think of lying,” and Snake Marek is, well, a snake. Talking animals have been used before, in novels from George Orwell’s Animal Farm to Clifford Chase’s Winkie. Yet Amberville lacks the political satire of the former and the social allegory of the latter.
Amberville also has its depth: As Eric’s story progresses, it is interpolated with conflicting perspectives, including the mad account of Eric’s twin, Teddy Bear. These voices offer some of the novel’s more beautiful writing, particularly the devastating interior monologue from a camel who has been tortured and left to die: “I screamed and I cried and I fainted and dreamed and woke up and he was still there . . . sometimes he laughed and sometimes he was serious and I don’t know if he saw me at all.”
No character in Amberville is quite what he or she seems, and each offers a meditation on truth, power, the value of goodness, and the nature of evil. This dissembling extends even to the author—“Tim Davys” is a pseudonym and becomes one of the story’s double identities. Corduroy’s happy ending teaches Freeman’s young readers about loving the underdog. Eric, however, is left with a Sophie’s choice to make, and only the reader holds all the information. If there is any lesson to be learned from Amberville, it might be the importance of knowing just which underdog needs protection.