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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

On the surface, this novel tells the story of Milo Mustian and his search for the snake Death, his retarded brother Rato Mustian, and Phillip, the family’s pet dog—all of whom are lost in the woods. The hunt, however, merely provides a vehicle for a greater search, the one Milo...

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On the surface, this novel tells the story of Milo Mustian and his search for the snake Death, his retarded brother Rato Mustian, and Phillip, the family’s pet dog—all of whom are lost in the woods. The hunt, however, merely provides a vehicle for a greater search, the one Milo makes for his own manhood.

The novel opens simply, with Milo recovering from a night of debauchery at the Warren County fair. His evening included a sexual encounter with Lois Provo, a girl who works at a snake show at the fair. Milo awakens in the morning to find that the family dog, Phillip, is sick and that he must lead the Mustian family entourage to the veterinarian. He goes with Rato, his sister Rosacoke, and their grandfather, Papa, to meet the town veterinarian, a drunkard. Mistakenly identifying the dog’s problem as rabies, the veterinarian declares the dog mad.

At the veterinarian’s office, Milo meets his partner from the night before, Lois. The reader learns that she and her mother travel around with the carnival exhibiting their giant python, Death. They all meet back at the fair.

Phillip, the “mad” dog, has left the veterinarian’s wearing a muzzle. Rato removes it. At the fair, the dog, who hates snakes, meets Death, and a fight ensues. The dog chases the snake into the nearby woods, with Rato in close pursuit. What might seem only somewhat strange at this point becomes bizarre, as the plot changes from realism into a strange mythological tale. Price also mixes the tragic and the comic, with the ensuing search for the missing trio taking on slapstick tone. The hunt for Death and his pursuers becomes Milo’s road to self-discovery and, in general, a search for truth on the part of all the novel’s characters. Milo takes center stage in this hunt, as revelation after revelation slowly opens the young man’s eyes to the world. In essence, Milo comes to understand the nature of love. His one sexual encounter with Lois left him lusting for more, and this lust consumes his every waking thought.

A crowd of locals—or a posse, as Price calls them—gathers to search for the missing boy, his dog, and the snake. Sheriff Rooster Pomeroy leads the group. The posse’s search—at times somewhat surrealistic—occupies the rest of the novel. What the reader slowly comes to realize is that each character’s life is intertwined with those of the others. At first, Lois’s mother had claimed to be her aunt; however, as each character tells his story, the reader learns that Lois has been fathered by a cousin of Milo. This man deserted the mother, leaving her with the eighteen-foot python. This cousin of Milo, Lois’s father, has apparently died, leaving an unclaimed $10,000 insurance policy.

The men move from adventure to adventure in their search for the missing trio, allowing Milo to see the helpful posse for what it really is: bored men searching for a little excitement. Running across a liquor still in the woods, they stop to sample their find. Milo participates as well, which results in his moving in a drunken stupor out of the woods to the house of the posse leader, Sheriff Pomeroy. There he meets Kate Pomeroy, a popular woman in the neighborhood who looks to other men for the sexual pleasure that her impotent husband, the sheriff, cannot provide. This situation appears heavenly to a fifteen-year-old sex-crazed boy, and they fall into the bed together. During their liaison, Milo hears Mrs. Pomeroy’s tale about her first sexual relationship—her partner was Milo’s cousin, Lois’s father. Claiming that Milo is the mysterious stranger of whom she has been dreaming for thirteen years, the bored housewife reveals to the young man the complexities of an adult sexual relationship. The liaison is interrupted when the doorbell rings and a distraught Milo, clothes in hand, escapes out the window.

From this encounter, Milo goes on to meet a ghost and finally Death. He wrestles with the snake and is rescued in the nick of time by the drunken posse, which arrives to kill the python. The group returns to the Mustian house, where Milo gets some much-needed sleep. Rato and Phillip have not yet appeared, and a bloody shirt belonging to Rato, found in the woods, convinces everyone that the boy is dead.

The next morning, Milo and Lois meet, and he convinces her that the last twenty-four hours have made him understand the nature of sexual maturity. Claiming to realize now that he cannot simply take from her but must give as well, Milo contemplates his future with his love. Their plans, however, are interrupted by a returning Rato. In good health, Rato explains that his bloody shirt resulted from a fight with a fox and that Phillip is well; he only had worms.

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