Midway through Clifford Chase's delicious first novel, a madman hiding out in the woods spots Winkie, a teddy bear come to life, and his child, Baby Winkie. This "ersatz Unabomber" and amateur naturalist is entranced by the younger bear and begins taking field notes: "She's the wild animal of the unconscious. She's like a little furry Buddha. She's in all your favorite books—books you haven't even thought about in years—Walden, Orlando, Portrait of the Artist." It's lively writing, but, more to the point, these notes match the experience of reading Chase's novel. Winkie manages at once to tap into the deep forests of literature, history, psychology, and science and to emerge as its own perfectly original specimen, not unlike Baby Winkie herself.
Winkie's adventure begins as an FBI team, in hot pursuit of the bomber, descends on a cabin in the woods and apprehends the stuffed bear by mistake. Some months earlier, Winkie had willed himself to life, breaking through a suburban bedroom window to escape decades of neglect by various members of the Chase family, including the author. The newly animated toy determines to take up life in the forest "like a real bear"—one, of course, with an impeccable facility for language and reason, and hence the ability, according to his captors, to have masterminded every crime in recent history (terrorism, treason, trying to overthrow the government) and some not so recent (witchcraft, teaching evolution in the schools, acts of gross indecency with certain young British men).
While much of the novel is devoted to the teddy bear's lockdown and trial, an uproarious farce reminiscent of notorious trials past and present, it never bogs down in politics. The satire is too sharp, the little bear too humane. Winkie has known the intolerable pain of loneliness and rejection; he's lived as both male and female (his first owner, Chase's mother, dressed him in black velvet and called him Marie); he's birthed a child, then had her ripped from his fuzzy breast. Still, it's Winkie's teddy-bear nature that the author so gloriously illuminates: The stuffed toy feels empathy for the helicopter that has come to capture him because there is no room for it to land between the trees, and he hopes that his hulking, sedated prison cellmate might be a bear, too.
Chase's first book, The Hurry-up Song, is a memoir about his older brother, who died of AIDS. Growing up as two queer kids who moved around a lot, the boys spent hours creating robust imaginary worlds. Their arch, often surreal humor and ferocious sense of play infuse each page of Winkie—which is a case study in everything a novel should be.