THE KING'S COUNCIL
In which your Sovereign Majesty gets an earful on contemporary literature from your loyal councillors
[PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES], Bill Henderson, Ed.
Allow me to pass the baton here on The King's Council to our fearless editor, J. Todd Gillette. He'll take up where I've left off with Pushcart, examining the remaining stories in the anthology and tussling with Bill over their merit. Should be highly entertaining, if his first entry's anything to go by. --Benjamin
J. Todd Gillette: “Dogged” opens with a vividly brutal image that happily anticipates our protagonist’s marriage:
The dog was unpredictable, mean. Ken Furlch had given it to Colby one day while he was in Furlch’s Texaco station, servicing one of his cigarette venders. The dog had just taken a bite out of Ken’s daughter’s Shetland pony. They’d heard the pony kicking up a ruckus tethered behind the tire shed, found the dog hanging from its side, like some kind of giant leech, legs dangling, teeth buried in its flanks. Wouldn’t let go, neck muscles bulging, jaws clamped down tight as a lock wrench. Ken finally had to pry it loose with a broom handle, all the while his brother, Odell, beating on it with a piece of muffler pipe.
Good heavens. Now that’s how you open a post-modern think-piece. And I’m not being facetious. O’Keitinn’s agenda here is fairly ambitious. Where he breaks the rules—pushing his characters to do things they would not do, or establishing tension that goes unresolved--it’s at least clear an aesthetic choice is at play. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that those choices were made before he started.
But linger over that opening. You have, in one muscularly over-verbed paragraph, the essence of our setting (isn’t “My Name Is Earl” filmed there?), enough information about our protagonist to create interest in its elaboration, and the establishment, with the words “unpredictable, mean” and the pony bit, of foreboding tension. Who could resist reading on?
O'Keitinn's scheme is to ... present him to the congregation soaked but saved. Too damn bad
we have to shoot a dog
Our protagonist, Colby, is offered the dog we just met and accepts it without much thought or trepidation: “Be good to have a dog, a mean one at that, and he took it home with him to the farm that same day.” To his mild surprise, the dog takes to him, or tolerates him, and they live in respectful harmony until Ray-Jeana Voyles (O’Keitinn’s names are wonderful), an avaricious slut from Effingham (even his town-names reverberate) charms our modestly prosperous Colby toward matrimony. Without, again, much thought or trepidation, he accepts Ray-J’s advances, and they wed. Here, predictably, our boy-girl-dog triangle takes over, and our author, ostensibly, takes to exploring the possibilities of the old “Either the dog goes or I go” scenario. Well, his investigations don’t go too far. Colby, though he drags his feet, takes the dog out and shoots it between the eyes. To his astonishment, the dog survives and beats him home. Colby, in a second, more damning strophe of what starts to look like a sick joke, shoots the dog again, and this time the dog does not return. Regret sets in. End of story?
To understand what O’Keitinn is really up to, just look at his protagonist. Colby’s choices—to take home an obviously dangerous dog, to marry a renowned bed-hopper--are mere shrugs. He earns his living (“earns” is not the word) selling, without remorse, cigarettes to teens, cushioned from responsibility and communion by his vending machines. Over the course of more than a year, it does not occur to him to name his dog. Even Colby’s blurred physical appearance suggests profound anonymity:
He’d stare at himself in the mirror one day and see his brow rising up and up till it was almost overlapping his crown, as though he were all face. Later he’d look again and see just the reverse—like one of those trick cubes—he’d be all head, all pate crushing down on the lower features of his face, making them look squinched together, small and inconsequential. Eventually, he took to wearing glasses—no vision problem, just felt they helped break up that vast expanse of forehead.
A logical psychological contributor to Colby’s morally and emotionally anesthetized state is the disappearance, when he was four, of his mother:
Authorities tended to believe his mother had met with foul play, probably been raped and murdered, then dumped in a shallow grave somewhere. Most people—including his father—were of a similar mind, preferring to view Stella as an innocent victim rather than a woman who’d desert her own family. Not him [Colby], though. Not when he was growing up, anyway. He didn’t want her dead and buried—even if it meant she’d run off. Never mind placing blame, he just wanted her back, to see her and hear her voice again, the way it made him feel inside, like there was a caring, a softness and calm, holding everything together.
Although insufficient to explain his actions and something of a ruse, this backstory humanizes Colby, softens his edges, brings fuel to the emotional climax of the story, and makes the conclusion believable. Nevertheless, Colby remains fundamentally a functional character serving O’Keitinn’s Big Idea; he is an anti-hero, a Meursault, and as such, any explanation of his behavior is, as I said, something of a ruse. O’Keitinn’s scheme is to set up Colby as the spiritual outsider, the great pragmatist, the modern relativist, then whop him upside the head, hold his head over the abyss for a spiritual swirly, then present him to the congregation soaked but saved. That’s about all you need to know about Colby’s character. Too damn bad we have to shoot a dog to accomplish all this.
Ah, shooting the dog… Now, why in hell does Colby shoot the dog? In the first place, if he doesn’t, there’ll be no “conjugal partaking” with Ray-J. She’s made that clear. So, as if sensibly, he tries to do her bidding and get rid of his nameless mutt.
At first he tried finding a home for the dog. He got no takers. He thought about just turning it loose somewhere, but he’d heard too many stories about abandoned dogs: starving, running wild in packs, killing livestock, attacking children…
I’m not convinced. As if Colby could really care about feral dogs. And what about the Humane Society, animal shelters, a drop-off in Cairo? No, Colby shoots the dog because the theme, first, then the plot, require it. Why did Meursault shoot the Arab? Same upside-down literary hierarchy (theme begets plot begets character), better philosopher.
What is more artistically questionable, in terms of its symbolic implications, is the dog’s return after being shot in the head. It’s arresting and original at first glance, this return from the dead, until we realize that O’Keitinn is deploying the oldest and most irresistible chestnut in western art. After the dog’s return, a doubting Colby examines the wound:
The hole was there all right—right between the eyes where he’d aimed. Not much blood, though. He could see a web of it beneath the wound; a few trickles that had run down its muzzle were already dried and turning brown in the hot sun. The hole itself had stopped bleeding, looked dark and crusted with dust. Around its edges he could make out tiny splinters of bone.
Immediately thereafter, Colby takes the dog (God) back to the dump (Golgotha was a dump), and shoots it again, covering the carcass not with cardboard so much as Nietzschean significance. Yet there is in Colby a stirring of regret, a hope that the dog, like his mother (“…a caring, a softness and calm, holding everything together…”), is still alive. After being berated at the bar for not naming the dog, he decides, belatedly, to call the dog “Lassie.” But back home, the dog is nowhere to found.
He got out of the truck and walked around the house, whistling—no use calling out the name Lassie, the dog wouldn’t know it—even searched the barn, the old crib and silo. When he finally brought himself to realize the dog wasn’t there, he had a feeling so heavy in his chest it seemed about as far from surprise as he could ever get.
Ray-J, thinking Colby is on an overnighter to service venders in Cairo, Illinois, is furious to find him home. What Colby has done for her--at great spiritual cost, it’s coming clear--means nothing to her. O’Keitinn very skillfully builds, releases, then builds and releases ever greater waves of emotional tension, beginning with the heaviness in the chest quoted above, and progressing through Ray-J’s spurning of Colby, then Colby’s realization she has arranged a tryst with an old boyfriend in his presumed absence—until we arrive, ready and willing and a little shaky, at Ray-J’s sleeping bedside:
Ray-J had rolled over, was no longer snoring, though appeared to be asleep. Kicking off his slippers, about to climb back into bed, he felt for one caught moment like shaking her awake, getting in her ear; next thing he was remembering the rifle still out in the pickup, that he’d forgotten to bring it in. As he stood there staring down at her, she began to blur, grow fainter and fainter before his eyes until he was gazing right on through her to the coldest ashes of his own desire.
Of a sudden he inhaled fear, choked on it, looked quickly away, trembling, as if searching the room for something long missing within himself…a vague memory, a distant, forgotten notion—everything somehow fitting together differently.
He was still standing there trembling when he thought he heard a noise—the sound of scratching at the back door.
Thus, in a brief section worthy--and redolent, in fact--of Fitzgerald, O’Keitinn allows Colby the abyss of not mere emotional immolation, but a vision of destitution and evil within himself, of his mother murdered, very possibly by his father—and, at that moment, faintly, a scratching (read: knocking) is heard at the door.
He goes downstairs to the door and opens it, and tentatively begins--shaken awake at last to life and faith--his first prayer:
"Lassie…" he called out—feeling silly as he did—did it anyway. "Lassie, you out there, boy?”
O’Keitinn’s imposition of the Passion theme upon an existential framework, as if to correct Camus et. al., is unworthy of his talents. The ploy is too obvious and demonstrably too constraining. He would do better to let his characters lead their own lives. Nevertheless, I admire “Dogged” its wonderful narrative voice, for the inventive and meticulously casual way O’Keitinn has constructed its sentences, and for the story’s energy, vivid settings, and skewed characters.
Wow, Todd -- my
hat's off to you. That's quite a reading you've got there, and one with
which I'm inclined to agree.
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