Julia Slavin is inordinately clever, her skewed take on suburban Washington, D.C., full of mind-boggling images and the tensions of today's reality. Wendy Dunleavy is in a quandary. Her husband, Matt, a former Congressman, is incarcerated and her son Dylan has just lost a lucrative job as the voice of a cartoon character named Harlan, puberty assailing his formerly high-pitched vocal chords.
Adding to the drama, a mysterious animal, the chagwa, a sometimes-carnivorous mythological hermaphroditic beast, has been randomly attacking the neighborhood, giving rise to ludicrous sightings and terrible tales. Fantasy abounds - beasts and monsters, not to mention nosy neighbors who feast on someone else’s downfall.
With no husband to protect her, in a land of ubiquitous politicians and random social causes, Wendy is unmoored, beset with fears and insecurities as fourteen-year old Dylan stands by helplessly. Wendy copes with her out-of-control existence with a diet of sleeping pills and mood enhancers, glued to the local TV station reporting sightings of the monster-at-large, eventually crumbling under the pressure.
Washington, D.C., is no place for the faint-of-heart; Wendy and Dylan are the objects of interest and curiosity in a city that knows virtually everything about everybody. D.C. is licking its chops, chasing the fearsome chagwa and dissecting those in the spotlight, where a woman alone is ripe fruit to be picked.
Wendy and Dylan are dragged kicking and screaming into a changing future where Wendy experiences a psychic metamorphosis while Dylan holds down the home fort, living in the house with all of the other “Harlan’s” who have played the voice of the cartoon character over the years. Only the chagwa is oblivious, attacking the Dunleavy’s house, demanding meat.
Finally the citizens mobilize, cooperating in mutual need and chronic desperation. Hard to tell whether Slavin’s bizarre, dark vision is an hallucination or another version of reality. Consider the beast allegorical, usurping reason as families disintegrate with no center to hold them together. It’s all in the eye (or mind) of the beholder: “If we feel more secure on the outside, we can begin to change on the inside.”