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