Jeremy Haladyna’s novel Oxtail is a madcap romp involving inept law enforcement, nerdy storm chasers, outsized small-town characters, and space aliens.
Sign painter Harley Rennet is a dreamer in Sandusky, Kansas, in search of artistic bliss, a man who “might occasionally —every so often—be spotted lingering in a field, ogling a show of natural beauty.” Nearing 60, he feels his age, especially driving his old Rambler on a weekend day “if only to keep its internal fluids moving and the suspension spry enough to keep its bounce on the dirt section roads.”
One night the Rambler is taken into an alien spaceship where an ugly creature whose single eye exhibits a “restless gun-turret motion around 360 degrees” telepathically explains the aliens’ need for bovine tissue to survive. Harley’s job is to identify herds to cattle rustle. Because he also has a wacky dream of creating crop-circle drawings in grain fields (“This was art that would be DOCUMENTED and digitally streamed around the world for all to see”), the bargain is set: cow kidnapping on Thursdays, “cereal medium” art on Fridays.
Combining science fiction and police procedural tropes, the story is well-paced with boldly-drawn characters and witty, though often unnatural-sounding, dialogue. Replete with dense wordplay and some self-indulgent excesses, the writing includes a heavy dose of hometown-yokel humor and cringeworthy male-gaze moments (“the beauty of her tight hindquarters” describes a female assistant).
Still, this is an engaging story, and Haladyna offers delightful “a-ha!” moments that recall earlier details for careful readers. The conclusion offers closure while mirroring early chapters.
With judicious editing, Oxtail could be a standout. As is, readers will happily overlook the author’s narrative extravagances and enjoy this rollicking ale.