River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Everything about the premise of River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (they/them) is interesting. Cowboys that ride hippos? Yes, please. Strong women in lead roles? Absolutely! An alternate history about what might have happened if the U.S. government really did choose to import hippos to help with the meat shortage in the late 19th century? For sure! And yet, I’m learning that Gailey’s strengths as a writer are overshadowed by her advocacy for LGBTQ characters.

What does that mean? Here’s an example: despite being a feminist wild west novella, one of Gailey’s newer works, Upright Women Wanted, turned me off because all the characters seemed like paper dolls being marched around, with their only defining characteristics being their different sexualities and gender presentations. They had zero personalities. I DNF’d Upright Women Wanted about halfway through.

However, I own a copy of River of Teeth and wrangled (much like a hippo cowboy) Biscuit into reading it with me. While Gailey does get into the characters’ genders and sexuality (a bisexual man, a non-binary person), the author also goes beyond sexuality and gender and includes a fat French woman and a hugely pregnant Hispanic woman. Not all the characters are white (though, oddly, you could forget that because they’re labeled once and then we move on). Although we normally see and read straight white men in western novels, Gailey has set up a diverse cast for a hippo-killing caper.

Houndstooth has been hired by the government to spend a year catching feral hippos that are trapped between a gate and a dam along a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The desire is to get rid of the hippos, the dam, and the gate to re-open the river as a trade route. He assembles his crew, much like the start of an action movie in which the best of the best in certain fields of expertise come together — even though they hate each other — all for the love of money. The only thing that stands in their way is Travers, who owns gambling boats on that hippo-infested stretch of river. And just an FYI, hippos are incredibly dangerous. According to the BBC, they kill over 500 Africans per year and are the deadliest land mammal.

The characters in River of Teeth were much more memorable than the book I didn’t finish. And yet, they never jive. Backstories are presented or kept secret for reasons unclear. For example, Houndstooth hates a man named Cal, who burned down the hippo ranch Houndstooth spent years saving for. And yet, Cal is on the caper team. When you find out why, and how easy it is to replace Cal, you wonder what Gailey was even thinking. Both Archie and Delia are from other countries, so what are they doing in Louisiana? How do they know Houndstooth? We don’t learn that. Instead, they have a few labels that define them: Archie is fat, French, and brushes her hippo’s teeth. Delia is Hispanic and pregnant. Hero is non-binary, dark skinned, and retired. The depth is seriously lacking when I can’t tell you more about a character than a handful of labels.

You might get over the lack of characterization if you enjoy violence. Several scenes with knives surprised me, and were quite thrilling! I loved that these cowboys (cowfolks? cowpersons?) were seriously into the life. I didn’t want them to be totally friendly or trustworthy, and there Gailey delivers. And yet, too many twists and false-starts in the plot (it’s just a novella!) was a real turn off.

By the end of the book, neither Biscuit nor I could fully understand what was up with Travers. Did he like the ferocious, feral hippos to which he could throw cheaters? Was it that other boats kept away? Why were people so eager to join a gambling cruise in this dangerous, hot, sweaty part of the river? Let’s just say there were plot holes. Also, Houndstooth was given enough money to spend a year capturing the hippos (the book implies humanely), but he’s got this idea of just blowing up the dam and scaring the hippos into the Gulf of Mexico to let the coast guard deal with them. Wouldn’t the government notice, and, like, not appreciate that? And it turns out that Houndstooth has no idea what he’s doing:

“It’s not a caper, Hero. It’s an operation. All above-board. All very well-planned and prepared-for.”

“And what’s the plan?” Hero asked.

Houndstooth coughed. “I was hoping you’d help me come up with that.”

I know that there is a second novella titled Taste of Marrow, but after reading the synopsis, it’s a no thanks from me. Though I can appreciate that many readers feel seen by Sarah Gailey’s characters, her writing strikes me as poorly developed and more of a message than a story. If you’re interested in books with fully-developed LGBTQ people, by LGBTQ authors, check out instead Little Fish by Casey Plett, the Fat Angie series by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Ultra by Olivia Hill, and You’ll Be Fine by Jen Michalski, among others.

CW: animal death

23 comments

    • My favorite part was everything to do with the hippos. Oddly, the hippos had great personalities. I think Gailey has great ideas, but their work on characterization could use some polish. Perhaps their newer books are better in that regard? There are a few authors who never sit quite right with me, including Gailey, Mona Awad, and Stephen Graham Jones.

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  1. This type of writing where characters are just reductive identities really bugs me – people are so much more than a collection of labels! I think I’ll be skipping this author – shame they didn’t work for you.

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    • I found a self-published book that looked cool. It had fat characters, which is why I bought it. It was in first-person POV, and the whole first page was the main character describing all the labels that applied to them. I know labels help people feel seen and can also assist with self-actualization, but we don’t meet people who stand there and list their labels in real life. I want to see the person and get to know all parts of them, including their labels, organically.

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  2. I’m not sure if I was Biscuit I would appreciate the simile about wrangling Hippos. And how do you wrangle a hippo? Would it notice if you dived on its back and attempted to wrestle it to the ground? Good on Gailey though for her gender and race-diverse wranglers (but why was a hugely pregnant Mexican woman planning on riding into a swamp to wrestle hippos?). I like books where you have to look really hard to see what colour people are.

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    • All my knowledge about hippos comes from Google and the movie Congo, in which hippos eat a bunch of people in raft boats on the river, so I’m not sure what wrangling a hippo would entail. Houndstooth basically wanted to blow up things near the hippos to scare them in a certain direction.

      The Mexican woman was an I-can-do-anything sort of woman, so I guess the pregnancy didn’t get in her way? However, when she enters the scene the other characters can see the baby pushing a hand on her stomach, so she’s like, REALLY pregnant.

      I don’t like books in which it’s hard to remember what color people are because my brain — and I’d argue almost all the brains in the Western world — are defaulting to white skin, which erases people of other skin colors and ethnicities.

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  3. If I remember correctly, Taste of Morrow dives further into their back stories. I read the combined novellas, American Hippo.
    Bummed that it didn’t quite work for you but that’s okay! I absolutely loved it. I loved that there was lots of representation but that we focused more on the characters themselves throughout the story than rehashing what labels they were. I loved that Houndstooth didn’t really know what they were doing but were in charge anyway. I thought that made it more fun. Hero was my first time reading about a non-binary person and it threw me for a minute because they never really say that, it’s just there. My brain had to work for it apparently but I found it so refreshing. Since these were my first Gailey reads, I was super pumped for this author but then I read Magic for Liars (I told you We Are Magic originally, two close titles probably isn’t too wise) and I was less than impressed with that story.

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    • Yeah, I had to DNF Upright Women Wanted. That one was pretty much a reiteration of labels in a cast of half a dozen women whom I could not tell apart. River of Teeth is actually better. I’ll bet you would seriously love Ultra by Olivia Hill. Hill is a transwoman and writes diverse characters in her book, and it’s a sort of sci-fi/government conspiracy novel I can see you eating up. I loved it so much I bought all of her other books.

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        • OMG, Ultra is sooo good. Also, Olivia Hill has a whole series about a millennial who hunts monsters as a gig. As in, like, the gig economy. I bought all of them and am going to read them in 2022. Once we sort of separated out what Gen Z is and a millennials, I realized I AM a millennial. At first, I didn’t think so because there was so much I didn’t relate to (most of it was around internet, computers, smart phones, etc.).

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          • Yeah, those generational gaps are larger than you would imagine. I’m a millennial as well and I don’t believe half the bullshit they spout about us. Most people my age that i know are hard workers. I think the older people are angry we don’t just take their shit like they did with the generation before them.

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                • It’s funny that U.S. Boomers still picture Millennials as college students. Some of us are now caring for tweens AND aging parents. Some of us are breathing down the neck of forty. I even see it in commercials. There’s one about a teen who has Invisalign braces and closes the curtains in the living room with a remote. Her mom laments that things were harder when she was a teen, and they show a scene from the 80s. Okay, if that lady was a teen in the 80s, she’d be in or very near the 60s. That’s not a mom age, that’s a grandmother. Get the timeline right, advertising. Yeesh.

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            • I also appreciate that Gen Z is taking up the fights that I’m too jaded to. Like climate change and a living wage. I read about a 19-year-old young women who was offered a job at $11 per hour but told them she couldn’t accept their offer because she can’t live with that low of a wage. Like, I can’t imagine saying that. And with climate change, Gen Z is working on it, and I’m basically saying, “I reduce my plastic use, but we’re all going to die from this, you know.” Ugh, my attitude is gross.

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              • Gen Z has inspired to me to say, no that’s not enough to companies. Everyone is complaining about the fact no one wants to work instead of blaming companies that don’t want to pay a living wage. Specifically essential workers. You told them that they were heroes, yet they don’t deserve a pay raise. Fuck that and fuck you. Time for corporations to no longer rule the world and the power goes back to the people.
                Climate change, I feel like I’m jaded on this one too. I do try to help where I can and be aware of what I’m doing to the planet.

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                • I saw on the news this morning that the majority of workers striking at Kellog are the folks who actually have the pension, good benefits, and higher wage. The newsperson asked why they were striking when they already have the best stuff. They said for their kids, neighbors, nieces and nephews. I almost teared up. When I think “America,” I want to think about that and not all the things I actually think.

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  4. It’s tricky when the message outweighs the story, especially when it’s a message you want to see and support in books. The plot sounds like it could have so much potential too!

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    • I mentioned in a comment to Cupcakes & Machetes that a book that includes a diverse cast of LGBTQ characters and reads like real people is Ultra by Olivia Hill. I love reading about characters unlike me, but I don’t want the character sketch, I want the character.

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  5. For some reason, like I know hippos are super dangerous, the calgary zoo has a pair that we see often and always remind my kids how dangerous they can be. But also – their tank at the zoo is complely viewable underwater as well, and they often do somersaults and flips under water and it’s SUPER ADORABLE. Like so cute, the way they play and splash around in the water is just lovely.

    Too bad these characters are just cut-outs – sigh. It’s tricky for authors to find that balance I think – still representing but still making believable characters too. And for a novella! That’s tricky, a lot to cram in for sure.

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    • I think the thing with hippos is they are both territorial and protective of their young. I wonder about Gailey’s work. They’ve been in the public eye long enough that people know who they are, and yet I’ve read authors with a similar identity and characters who write much better but aren’t well known. It might be that Gailey was there first and able to wave a flag for the LGBTQ reader, who hadn’t seen themselves much before.

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