Chris Flynn, Mammoth (#BookReview)

Book cover

Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (UQP $32.99)

I am not a big fan of anthropomorphism and have read very few animal-narrated books. Animal farm is one, while Watership down, so enamoured by many of my generation, is not. However, I was intrigued by Chris Flynn’s Mammoth, which is narrated by a 13,000-year-old American Mastodon fossil, and was glad when my reading group decided to schedule it.

It is an ambitious book, encompassing the story of humanity’s destructive, often brutal march through time as seen through the eyes of those we supplanted, that is, the fossils of extinct creatures. Our narrator, Mammut, is accompanied by a number of other fossils – the skull of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, a pterodactyl, a prehistoric penguin, and the severed hand of an Egyptian mummy – who have found themselves together in 2007 Manhattan, waiting to be sold at a natural history auction. This auction did take place, and was, in fact, a major inspiration for the novel.

The story is framed by Mammut’s story of his life, death, disinterment as a fossil, and subsequent “life”. As he tells this long story, he is interrupted by the other “characters” who share their own stories, albeit far more briefly than Mammut’s. Each tends to use the voice of the time when he or she was first disinterred, meaning, for example, that Mammut’s voice is the more formal “arcane” one of the early 19th century, while T. bataar’s is the hip voice of the late 20th century.

As Mammut tells his story, he takes us to selected (representative) hot-spots of human brutality such as the Irish Rebellion of 1803, the oppression of Native Americans in the early 1800s, and Nazi Germany. He also covers theories of extinction, climate change, and the equation of big animals with power in the minds of men. The novel starts with a letter written in 1800 by Thomas Jefferson seeking mammoth bones (which he does eventually acquire for the White House), and ends with male celebrities vying for our fossils at the auction. Early on, Mammut tells T. bataar:

Let me tell you, and I say this as an original American, nothing compares to this nation’s willingness to promote patently false notions about itself in order to create a myth of American potency … Who do you imagine will buy us? You said it yourself, T.bataar. We represent power, for that’s what we were: Behemoths, Colossi, Titans. (p. 15/16)

Later, Pterodactylus tells the group about being used in training Hitler Youth:

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

Mammoth is, then, a provocative book, confronting head on the ills of humanity. It could be deeply depressing – and in a way it is – but Flynn has taken his own advice (more on this anon) and told his story with humour, mainly through repartee between his fossil characters. I must say that I initially found this humour a bit silly, a bit obvious, and I wondered whether I was going to enjoy the book. However, the more I read, the more fascinated I became by what Flynn was trying to do. I didn’t find it as “hilarious” as some blurb writers did, but Mammoth offers such an idiosyncratic journey that I’m glad I decided to go with the flow.

One of the book’s main pleasures for me, besides its commentary on humanity’s destructiveness, is the writing master class contained within its over-riding story. This started with some digs about the writing life, such as Mammut’s “no-one gets into the writing game for money these days. No-one in their right mind, at any rate”. A sentiment that is reiterated later by French writer, Bernadin de Saint-Pierre.

However, more entertaining was the discussion of writing, or storytelling, itself. As Mammut’s tale progresses, his listeners begin to question him. Sometimes, it’s the issue of disbelief, to which Mammut responds by explaining his sources, by arguing that it’s perfectly valid for his molar to be observing action in one place while his head is elsewhere, or by allowing himself a little leeway:

I know you’re technically an elephant and all, but your recall of events is a little too precise. Not to mention the verbatim dialogue. Surely, you’re making some of this up? This is my problem with the memoir genre. There’s always more fiction in it than people let on.

I possess a remarkable memory, Palaeo, though I will admit to the occasional romanticism of the narrative. For the most part, what I am recounting is true. But, as you say, I am a storyteller who enjoys indulging in a yarn. (p. 143)

There’s also discussion of tone, regarding the degree of brutality and tragedy in Mammut’s tale:

… This entire tale has been a veritable famine of LOLs. Really, Mammut, next time you tell this story, you need to inject some humour, bro.

No too much, I think, T. bataar. No comedian ever won the Pulitzer … (p. 235)

Flynn, thus, cleverly engages with some current issues in criticism while simultaneously fending off potential criticism of his own work. He crowns this early on with the pronouncement that “No story’s gold from beginning to end” (p. 66). How can you argue with that!

There’s much more to this book. I haven’t touched on the fact that almost all its hominid characters are historical personages, many findable in Wikipedia. Mammoth offers an entertaining, accessible introduction to the history of palaeontology and 19th century natural science, and provides a springboard for further research, should you be so inspired.

For now, though, I’m going to end with a poignant statement made by Mammut early in the novel. “Our world was changing”, he says, “and there was nothing we could do about it” (p. 44). I fear this is exactly how our earth is feeling right now. Flynn, I think, would like us to take note and consider what we might do to prevent avoidable extinctions under our watch. An imaginative, engaging read.

Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes) enjoyed this book too.

Chris Flynn
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
ISBN: 9780702262746

(Review copy courtesy UQP and literary agent Brendan Fredericks)

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Chris Flynn (or Billy) on yoga

It’s been a couple of months since my last Delicious descriptions – life has been particularly busy – but I can’t resist stopping for a moment to share this one. It comes during one of my favourite set pieces in Chris Flynn’s A tiger in Eden which I reviewed a couple of days ago. This piece tells of a 10-day Buddhist retreat that the protagonist, Billy, attends. It’s one of those retreats where you remain silent for 10 days, meditate, do yoga, eat vegetarian food, and so on. Since I have taken up yoga (again) over the last few years, his description tickled me:

Golden Bow yoga pose

Golden Bow (Courtesy: OCAL, via

Some of the moves were hard even though I was fit as f*ck sure I couldn’t do them, stretching dead far till you thought your tendons would snap I was sweating so I was. I always thought the yoga was a load of aul hippy shite, no one told me it was a workout. After a couple of days I was dead into it though and practising in my cell sure I could near get my legs behind my head flexible as f*ck it turns out, who knew sure I could always find work as a stripper if nothing else worked out.

This little excerpt gives you another look at Billy’s voice and how Flynn has gone about achieving it. I liked the sound of it in my head as I read (notwithstanding the liberal use of expletives!).

Chris Flynn, A tiger in Eden (Review)

Flynn Tiger in Eden

Courtesy: Text Publishing

Are all people redeemable, regardless of what they’ve done? This is the question that confronts us in Chris Flynn’s debut novel, Tiger in Eden. I wondered, as I was reading this book, what inspired Flynn to write – in first person – about a man who was a violent thug during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and how he managed to achieve such an authentic voice. I don’t read reviews before I read books, and I didn’t read the press release which came with the book until I’d finished it, but when I did I discovered that Flynn was born in Belfast during the period he writes about. “I was born into the war and knew nothing else growing up”, he says.

He has seen horror, he says. He has had guns pointed at him, and he has heard “stories of torture and cruelty so nightmarish I would not recount them to someone who had grown up outside of Northern Ireland. You don’t want that in your head”. This, however, is the world of Flynn’s protagonist, the thug-on-the-run, Billy Montgomery, whose head is full of violent memories and whose hands are stained with blood. “Sometimes”, he says, “I reckon the worst thing that can happen to a person is surviving”.

I don’t want to say too much about the story because it’s a slim book with a small cast of characters and a pretty straightforward plot. To say too much would give it away. It’s set in Thailand in the mid 1990s. The aforesaid thug Billy, who is not short of a penny due to his criminal past, is hiding out. But, here’s the interesting thing. Billy is a sympathetic character, despite the violence we know he’s done (though we don’t know the full extent until near the end) and even despite the violence we see him enact in the first half of the novel. He’s sympathetic because we realise early on that he’s trying to work through something, that he’s carrying some terrible baggage he wants to shake off.

It’s the mark of a good writer to be able to make an unappealing character sympathetic. And Billy is pretty unappealing. Not only is there his violent past, but his attitude to women is (or, at least has been) appalling, as has been his attitude to Catholics and various other “lesser”, to him, members of society. But, this book is really about the education of young Billy and so, through the love of a couple of good women (which is, yes, a little corny) and some other meaningful encounters, a Buddhist retreat, and reading, Billy starts to think about his life and, consequently, starts to confront his demons.

One of the things that makes Billy work is his voice. The novel is told first person in the vernacular of his ilk. This means there’s liberal use of swear words*, minimal punctuation, and the grammar is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. The result is a voice that sounds authentic – and, in this case, reliable. The only thing stopping Billy from telling the truth at times is the pain it would release.

Billy is, of course, the tiger in Eden, a potential threat to good people everywhere, but just to give it some added real and metaphoric punch, Flynn has our Billy confronting and staring down an actual tiger, an escapee from a zoo (just like Billy really). However, whilst I say Billy is “the” tiger in Eden, he is not the “only” tiger in Eden. Flynn shows Thailand to be a place spoilt if not corrupted by sex-tourists and cashed-up back-packers who abuse the locals one way or another. Here is Billy after realising that a genuine friends-only outing with a local Thai girl threatens her reputation:

The aul sex tourism had changed things for all these people, I could see that now ‘cos normal life no longer existed. It was kind of like how the Troubles had changed things back home, once you go down that road, sure there’s nothing going back, everything gets changed forever and not for the better. I felt ashamed so I did.

In other words, while Flynn’s main story is men like Billy, he manages to make a few other points along the way.

At the beginning of this post I said that the book confronts us with the question of redemption, and so it does, but that’s not so much what Billy is seeking. He does not specifically ask to be “saved”. He simply wants to be able – psychologically and actually – to put the past behind him and “make something” of his life. This is not a perfect book. It’s somewhat predictable and the supporting characters are not well fleshed out, but Billy is a character that will engage you and make you see the world from another angle. And isn’t that what reading is all about?

Chris Flynn
A tiger in Eden
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922039

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

* So it’s not the book for you if that offends.