Animal Farm

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The residents of the Rancho Armadillo commune share everything, but soon discover that people, like chickens and pigs, are “not rational beings.”

Rancho Armadillo, both subject and locale of Judith Stephens’s recently published saga by that name, is a fictional commune which rises and falls during the last four decades of the 20th century. Whether the commune and its inhabitants actually existed in what we like to call the “real world” between 1960 and 2000 is debatable, but Stephens’s vision of their escapades is almost always both thought-provoking and savagely funny—a meritorious feat of literary sleight-of-hand.

The book, set in the forbidding, and beautiful, reaches of New Mexico’s volcanic mountains, can be taken as a composite portrait of the ideals and idiosyncrasies of a generation of young—or young-ish—Americans, and the social institutions they either invented or borrowed from other cultures and times. A ramshackle but vital community, Rancho Armadillo’s inhabitants and their hapless offspring, expats from a society rooted in sexual shame and greed, long to be motivated and transformed. Instead, their lives frequently reveal the very flaws of the society from which they’re trying to escape.

In this novel-in-stories, Stephens invites readers to make their own discoveries about communal life, rather than arriving at any predictable conclusions. Can a life based on rural poverty, animal husbandry, and the kind of love which is self-described as “free” but seems to come with the usual price tags, really guarantee serenity? Despite the success of other communities, (like the mythical “Fanghorn,” in which the residents were rumored to have meditated amongst their cabbages with miraculous results), Stephens’s answer appears to be a resounding “No.” Still, there are no predetermined expectations in Rancho Armadillo—the residents of the commune, like the reader, are persuaded to arrive at their own answers.

Example: although these new pioneers may have turned their backs on “mainstream” society, it often seems as if the same old inequities still exist between labor and management, men and women, children and adults, and, ultimately, humans and animals. All is presented to the reader with gusto—or at least with recognition—as Stephens steers the triumphs and peccadilloes of the pioneers’ lives backward and forward through time. With skill and wit, she manages to coordinate their experiences into a convincing though sometimes ragged whole. Among the Armadillo’s “stars” are the prototypical hippie queen who loves to dash around in front of everyone, including her own pre-pubescent daughter, with nothing on but a few smears of mud—but who finds it increasingly difficult to find, or keep, a satisfactory mate. Other casualties of that particular war are almost-grown children who may not have outlived early abuse; minds that explode from drugs or self-delusion; and at least one pair of budding artists who experience despair when they discover that, even in this alternative society, their finest work is insufficiently valued. Just as they did back in New York, they have to resort to forgery to survive.

In one sequence, the Armadillo’s communards debate the possible slaughter of their geriatric, non-egg-laying chickens, each faction displaying its own idiosyncratic reasoning—vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian. The dispute ends in a free-for-all when a non-vegetarian suggests an across-the-board massacre of all the old hens (who are named for the heroines in Euripides’ The Trojan Women), because of his own unsatisfied longing for a fried chicken feast.

Of course, one of the communal vegetarians, more familiar with the vagaries of poultry than the hungry meat-eater, points out that geriatric chickens are totally inedible, and the Armadillo’s pundits are forced to debate methods of disposal for these elegantly named hens and/or their carcasses. Emotions run high, various accusations are leveled. The battle ends in a precarious truce; the communards construct a luxurious new chicken coop, buy a flock of egg-laying adolescents, and leave the new and old hens in a state of peaceful coexistence. As it turns out, however, the old chickens—Cassandra, Helen, Andromache, and their cohorts—gang up on the unlucky new ones and try to peck them to death. Chickens, as one sage communard points out, are “not rational beings.”

Like the chickens and their human counterparts, many different kinds of livestock rebel when treated less than gently. Cows revolt against being milked, ripping up fence-lines and pronging their caretakers with untrimmed horns; swine sink into uncharacteristic savagery when deprived of nourishment, revealing the deeply symbiotic relationship between humans and at least some of their food sources. The linked chapters of Rancho Armadillo occur not so much chronologically as at various decisive moments in the characters’ lives and in the overall existence of the commune itself. No matter the outcome of each situation, the author is never at a loss for microscopic and vividly funny observation of all her characters’ traits, obsessions, and discoveries.

Mimi Albert is the author of the novels Skirts and The Second Story Man. Her fiction has won awards and grants from PEN, the New York State Council on the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Yaddo Foundation. She is a contributing editor of Poetry Flash and chair of the fiction committee of the Northern California Book Reviewers. More from this author →