A while back I was watching Ocean’s 11 when I realized that the story would be so much better if Danny Ocean’s band of professional criminals was comprised of rodents instead of humans, and if they were plotting their revenge-heist in a fantastical version of the Old West instead of some crummy casino.
Kidding. That would never have occurred to me.
But then I’m not Daniel Polansky, who developed this odd conceit into a clever novella. In his acknowledgements Polansky describes The Builders as “a one-note joke that remains funny for me five-odd years after I came up with it.” It is indeed funny, both because the premise is charmingly absurd and because the storytelling takes that premise so seriously. The characters may be knee-high to us, but their personalities are larger than life, as is the action they get into.
The cast’s mastermind (our mini Danny Ocean) is the Captain, a mouse whose voice is described as soprano in its squeakiness, but who commands respect with his steely gaze and deadly arms. He rounds up his old gang of gun-slingers, starting with Bonsoir the sly stoat, Boudica the sharpshooting opossum, and Cinnabar the lightning-fast salamander. Each creature’s skills correspond to its species: Barley the badger’s massive body allows him to wield the heavy artillery whereas Gertrude the mole runs an underground crime syndicate, pun very much intended.
The whole gang is scarred by past battles and mottled with age, but they’re all just as lethal as when they first banded together, and just as loyal to the Captain as they ever were (bearing in mind that some were more loyal than others back in the day). They’ve regathered five years after an explosive defeat scattered them across the kingdom and they’re ready to get their revenge. Much of the fun of reading The Builders is Polansky’s slow reveal of their troubled history and present politics, so I’ll skip further plot description to praise his lyrical narration. Who is telling this story? Some omniscient observer, above the fray and yet seemingly so immersed in it that I almost expected the narrator to reveal himself in a climactic twist as yet another small mammal with a vested interest in the action.
The cute premise, the vivid storytelling—it could’ve all been just good fun. But there’s an interesting philosophical theme at play here as well: what drives individuals to do what they do in life, good or bad, loyal or treacherous? Or in the parlance of these creatures, what drives certain pups to leave their litters for a life of violence?
In Ocean’s 11, each outlaw is perfectly suited to the crime he commits, but the movie never suggests whether that’s thanks to nature or nurture. In The Builders, the question is raised and the answer is clear: everyone’s behavior is determined from birth. Weasels are smarmy and untrustworthy, skunks are toxic troublemakers, cats are “violent, amoral sociopaths.” (What dog-lover hasn’t argued that point?) The mammals whisper amongst themselves that the cold-blooded species are standoffish, and the rattlesnake’s rattle reveals as much about his personality as the words he hisses afterward.
These creatures don’t resist their nature or complain that they’re beholden to it. The salamander doesn’t attempt to warm his heart with love, nor does the fox contemplate a career in which she doesn’t stalk prey from the shadows. To the contrary, they embrace their inevitable strengths and weaknesses; as that well-spoken narrator notes, “what is more joyous than to act according to our innermost nature?”
Of course, it’s hardly in animals’ nature to tote shotguns and swig whiskey. That’s Polansky’s one-note joke, I think. He tells a story in which the pests and pets of humanity rise up to anthropomorphic levels of brilliance—they’re brave and skilled, their dialogue is suave and threatening, their politics are deadly serious. And yet no matter how human they seem, each creature remains true to its own species.
The Builders is a deftly structured and entertaining. I’m not normally a huge fantasy enthusiast, but Polansky manages to pull me into the action with his smart narrator and richly developed characters. All jokes aside, this novella is a great read.