All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton is an interesting rediscovery, brought back into print over forty years after its original publication (in 1968) by Freight Books at the suggestion of Alan Warner. Warner was asked by Freight Books founder Adrian Searle if he knew of any forgotten Scottish novels that he felt deserved to return to print and he immediately suggested Hamilton’s debut novel. Hamilton’s early death (in 1969 aged only 34, but with one further novel puiblished) and the novel’s English setting perhaps go some way to explaining why the novel has been forgotten, though it is fair to say that many other Scottish novels from that time were only brought back into print in the 1980s.
The novel itself is difficult to classify. Its central character, Bobby, is a 31 year old man with the mind of a child. When, having run away from an abusive step-father, he meets up with Mr Summers we might be put in mind of Of Mice and Men – the novel is similarly brief. However, their relationship is not as central to the story as that of George and Lennie. There is also no aspiration to their plans, Mr Summers having devoted his life instead to a mission, to bury animals that have been killed on the road – what we would now call roadkill:
“People can bury each other, boy…but the animals have to be helped….Other men kill them and I bury them.”
This mission gives the novel a fable-like quality, and also reminded me of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, where the treatment of animals, and their corpses, becomes an important symbol of how we live our lives.
As Warner points out in his introduction, there is also a strong anti-car message at work. The novel opens with Bobby involved in a traffic accident, and later Mr Summers is also hit by a car. When Bobby asks Summers where he finds so many dead animals and who kills them he replies:
“On the roads, boy, the high-roads and the by-roads, where the wheels are, boy, and the men behind the wheels. They drive their silly metal boxes and kill and kill and KILL-“
In a scene where a driver harasses a man herding cattle along the road, Summers simply scratches the car as it passes. His hatred of cars takes on a religious intensity:
“I’m a blasphemer as well. I hate all cars and all motorists, I hold black masses and read the highway code backwards, I make clay models of rally drivers and stick pins in them and when I have to fill up forms I put my religion as pedestrian.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the abusive step-father, The Fat, is identified in Bobby’s mind with his car:
“It was foreign, I think, and big and black and silver and unfriendly looking. It was too big for an ordinary person relay so it could only have been the Fat’s car.”
The same car is also important in the novels’ dénouement. Admittedly, The Fat is a bit of a cartoon villain, but he does go some way to explain why the novel was made into a film in 1999 with John Hurt as Mr Summers and Christian Bale as Bobby, as the final couple of chapters are very much in the thriller genre.
Whether the novel is a rediscovered classic or not is really beside the point; the real question is whether it deserves to be back in print. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes: it’s interesting, eccentric and thought-provoking, and well worth reading.