“Disgusting does not mean undesirable,’” explains Kenneth as he brings home a ten-pound slug to his wife Terresa, who does not seem to understand the value of the invertebrate.
This phrase, from the short story “Mollusks,” seems to denote a certain theme throughout Arthur Bradford’s book of short stories entitled Dogwalker. In almost every story, the reader is presented with some sort of freak of nature, whether it is said slug, or a family of malformed humans with catlike faces, or mutant puppies, or a narrator who has sex with his girlfriend’s dog.
Each story confronts us with a certain oddity or malformation, which is treated in such a childlike, open-eyed way that the narration renders these subjects almost absurdly normal. For instance, when the narrator in the story “Catface” meets Maria, one of the cat-faced people, he notices her “shiny golden hair” before her “face just like a cat.” Dogwalker is a gem of a book, both fascinatingly twisted, and beautifully written.
Most of Bradford’s stories include dogs, either in the background, or as key characters. He makes good use of dogs as literary figures, as they can represent either quiet company or a sensibility that humans lack. In one story, the narrator acquires a three-legged pet dog and states, “Like most three-legged dogs this dog managed quite well for himself and I didn’t feel sorry for him at all.”
However, despite this obvious reason for the title, the stories also seem to offer a type of dog’s-eye perspective on life. Each tale told in the first-person, the narrator is most often completely unassuming, un-self-conscious, easygoing, and mildly curious about the world around him. While he is often surrounded by dogs, he generally tends to think like one as well. Often in these stories, the narrator is so ridiculously simple that the dogs are, in fact, smarter than him.
Bradford sets this tone, opening the book with an enlightening, if not confusing passage from Slacker. In his stories he shows us characters who are open to anything, and thus anything does happen. In a strange way, because of this acceptance of the unexpected, even the most shocking things faced aren’t as surprising as they could be to a more resistant author. Thus, when the reader is presented with a werewolf, or a man who steals a car from his blind friend, he is not shocked, merely intrigued, since that’s how the narrator reacts as well.
Another aspect of the book that is somewhat dog-like (and which saves it from being a collection of freak show short stories) is its low-key sweetness. The narrators, much like our canine friends, appreciate the simple things in life, and appreciate a little company. For instance, the end of the story “Six Dog Christmas” reads:
It was Christmas Day. I counted up my new dogs-one, two, three, four, five, six-and we all went inside where it was warm.
Of course, the narrator has stolen said dogs, but that doesn’t matter in the end. The story of a hideous chainsaw accident turns into a “how-we-met” tale worthy of Ann Landers. Bradford even manages to forge a warm, family-values ending out of the story “Dogs,” about the man who has amorous relations with his girlfriend’s dog.
On a side note, despite the good things I had heard about Dogwalker, I began the book with a strike against it. Is it because I hate dogs? Or short stories? No, it was because I was thoroughly annoyed by the cutesy-ironic blurbs on the back cover.
I was very impressed that Bradford had earned the lauds of David Sedaris and Dave Eggers as well as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Matthew Klam, some of today’s most high-profile and highly-praised modern writers. However, after scanning the reviews, this is what I came away with: Bradford is very tall (thanks to information from both Eggers and Zadie Smith), and that Matthew Klam once knew a guy who raised dogfish and aged potatoes in a pillowcase in his closet. Only Sedaris and Wallace deigned to give thoughtful responses to Bradford’s work.
Fortunately, Dogwalker speaks for itself, but I disliked beginning the book feeling like I was on the outside of some enormous, ironic writers’ in-joke. Whereas Sedaris and Wallace had something serious to say about Bradford’s writing, the other blurbs seem to denote the value of Bradford not because of his work, but because of who he’s friends with.
With Bradford’s twisted sense of humor and laid-back voice, he is undoubtedly a modern writer. “‘I’ll be damned,’” [Kenneth said], “‘if I’m going to let this slug come between us.’” Like most modern writer’s, his work has preceded his books in Esquire and McSweeney’s, but don’t hold that against him. Unlike many smug, pop-referencing modern writers, Bradford wins with innocence and even a certain tenderness, as opposed to acidic irony and cynicism.
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