by Eric Garcia
Published by Villard Books
288 pages, 1999
Who's Saurian Now?
Reviewed by Frederick Zackel
Anonymous Rex is high concept. It's a fast-paced, often very funny fantasy-cum-detective story centered on Vincent Rubio, a post-modern Los Angeles private investigator who also happens to be a Velociraptor -- the same kind of dinosaur that kept humans on their toes (and many moviegoers on the edge of our seats) throughout Jurassic Park.
That Earth's dinosaurs didn't all die 65 million years ago is the core conceit of this novel. Yes, most of them perished during "the Great Showers," as first-novelist Eric Garcia calls the meteors that apparently rained down on our planet at the end of the Cretaceous period. Those dinosaurs that survived the catastrophe and evolved later suffered immensely, for "so many millions of years dying of insignificant bacterial illnesses and minor infections." Today, only 16 separate species can still be found on our planet.
Why doesn't the human world know about them? Because approximately three million years ago, a group of softhearted dinos -- what else could they have been? -- determined that their kind would co-exist with "the filthy apes" who had left the trees for bipedal locomotion. It was then, Vince explains, that "our species first decided to permanently camouflage ourselves."
The dinosaurs have regretted that decision ever since. Now they must live undercover, hiding their revulsion (and their allergies) at the sight of humans. Thus, dinosaurs in Garcia's capable hands become a new minority group, its members not daring to raise their heads -- or, rather, not daring to shed their latex human disguises -- as they live day to day in a generally persecution-free environment. ("Not including the Middle Ages, of course. Dragons, my ass...")
Anonymous Rex offers a surprise on each new page. We learn, for instance, that modern dinosaurs -- like the aliens in Men in Black -- live quietly in our mundane world, making up as much as five per cent of our global population. They may be certified public accountants, CEOs of multinational corporations, dentists, homemakers and quilters, even mad scientists. A Brontosaur might work as a bouncer for the dino-Mafia, although "many of them play for the National Football League." Some dinosaurs are "fossil-makers," toiling every day "in one of the many laboratories scattered deep beneath the Museum of Natural History, coming up with new ways to fake our 'extinction' sixty-five million years ago." Others form roving dino-crews, prowling city streets in search of dino-corpses "before a human accidentally stumbles upon them and goes running to the paleontology department at NYU. We cannot afford any more modern fossil finds."
They have their own nightclubs, such as LA's Evolution Club, or the Fossil Fuels Club in Santa Monica, or the Tar Pit Club. As Vince says, "We love shit like that, little in-jokes that make us feel oh-so-superior to the two-legged mammals with whom we grudgingly share dominance over the earth." For all this, Garcia's dinos are remarkably humanoid in their vanities and conceits. They have their own porn magazines (Stegolicious and Double Diplodod Dames). Vince is hooked on basil (the dino equivalent of weed), and he's a great fan of the short-lived 1983 TV series Manimal (about a crime-fighting behavioral scientist who could transform himself into various beasts). Like the rest of his "people," he's paranoid that humans will discover the dinosaurs' existence -- "the most classified Secret of all the classified Secrets." However, Vince teases readers with hints about "that dino nudist colony up in Montana -- hundreds of us, roaming free, unencumbered, baring our natural hides to the warmth of the sun."
Villard Books, Garcia's publisher, labels Anonymous Rex "a detective story." But the detective angle is little more than a railroad track down which Garcia's fantasies can travel to some conclusion, without danger of wandering off in a dozen different directions.
The novel has at its center the same igniter that powers Dashiell Hammett's classic The Maltese Falcon. Once again a private eye's partner has been murdered; once again the private eye sets out on a quest to bring the murderers to justice. (To aficionados of the genre, this convention can be as pro forma and as necessary as a "Charge!" call to the cavalry.) Although he's down on his luck and sucking up basil like there's no tomorrow, Vince manages to pull it together enough to find links between his partner's death, the murder of a Carnotaurus industrialist and an arson at the Evolution Club, which killed a human privy to the dinosaurs' secret. His questions eventually lead the detective to a Triceratops geneticist, whose experiments threaten to violate the dinos' "cardinal rule number one, established since Homo habilis first dragged themselves onto the scene: It is absolutely forbidden to mate with a human." I give away too much if I relate the plot here to that of a certain H.G. Wells novel that has been made into at least three separate movies, or note how some of Garcia's scenes are derivative of those in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park.
When, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler wrote that "down these mean streets a man should go," he surely never imagined life-or-death battles between reptiles. Yet the action sequences in Anonymous Rex are some of the best, superbly choreographic and vividly rendered. Here, for instance, is Vince preparing for a battle in a dark alley:
With a violent spit, I disgorge my bridge, my caps, my mouthpiece, and they clatter to the filthy ground. It has been three months since I have uncovered my real teeth, those fifty-eight sharp syringes, and it feels so good to snap at the air, to break it in half with a vicious chomp.
Later, he celebrates a kill:
It is ten past midnight, and I cannot help but cry out, in my Raptor tones, a song of conquest, the howls welling up within me, filling me like so much carbonation, exploding, foaming, bursting out.
Author Garcia spends much time describing the costumes and guises the dinosaurs wear in order to "pass" among humans. These dinos all have claws and tucked-away tails, and great care must be taken with disguises to perpetuate the Great Myth of Extinction. Costumes are mostly Japanese-made "polysuits" with mask epoxy, clamps and hinges, buckles and snaps. Each guise has its own "proper personal ID number" -- unless it's unofficial. Yes, even dinosaurs break the law. The black market in guises -- run by Ankylosaurs, "the used-car dealers of the dinosaur world" -- might just operate out of what appears to be no more than a typical New York City sweatshop.
Garcia has obviously spent long hours lovingly creating his creatures and furnishing their subculture with very specific details. Dinos, he writes, unlike the filthy apes, "spew out pheromones like an out-of-control oil well, gushing out gases 24-7-365. The basic dino scent is a sweet one, at least, a fresh stroke of pine on a crisp autumn morning, with just a hint of sour swamp mist thrown in for good measure." As well, each dinosaur has his or her "own individual scent intwined with the dino odor, an identifying mark roughly equivalent to human fingerprints."
This is all wonderfully clever, in an engineering sense. But the weakness within Anonymous Rex lies in the shelf life of its originality. Readers will realize quickly that when an entire fictional community has an identity hidden from the dominant culture, most of the stories that are told -- or will be told in the future (Garcia is already working on a Rex sequel, perhaps even a series) -- are likely to be variations on themes of "coming out of the closet" or "trying to pass." Or perhaps how dangerous assimilation can be. There will be stories about half-breeds and bashings and maybe even lynchings. The panoply of prejudices will be recycled. Assimilation and accommodations will be analyzed. But at the root of each tale will be the all-too-familiar question: "Why can't we get along?"
Certainly, stories that break the ice of prejudice from around our hearts are desperately needed. And substituting dinosaurs for human minorities may soften the sting of recognition that comes from our realizing that too much of our hearts are irrationally prejudiced against others who are in some way "different."
Yet how long can the gimmick of dinosaurs among us -- and a dino private eye (his secret identity hinting, not too subtly, that all fictional P.I.s are dinosaurs) -- remain fresh? When does the hat trick get old? When does our enthusiasm wane?
Garcia should recognize one potentially dangerous sign on the horizon. Jonathan Karp, the distinguished senior editor at Random House who discovered Garcia's work, proudly and publicly admits that he has "little interest in either dinosaurs or noir fiction" and was, himself, surprised by "my enthusiastic reaction to Anonymous Rex." In other words, Garcia has a career as long as he can keep his publisher amused. That cannot give him comfort. It should certainly give him pause. | September 1999
FREDERICK ZACKEL reviews crime fiction regularly for January Magazine.