Matt Hlinak, DoG (Bizarro Press, 2013)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Netgalley.
Matt Hlinak’s DoG is published by Bizarro Press, which, if you’re familiar with the wild and wonderful word of bizarro fiction, may impart to you some preconceived notions about what you’re getting here. I will rush to tell you that all of those notions are wrong, pretty much. DoG feels like a straight drama to me for most of its length, despite some magical-realist elements, and doesn’t really dive into the realm of the weird until its final few pages. While I love bizarro, I don’t think this is a bad thing—Hlinak took some very difficult themes, played them straight, and for the most part came up with a winner.
The protagonist of DoG is one Culann Riordan, a former schoolteacher who has dropped out of sight after a misunderstanding with a student in his native Illinois. He has a hard-drinking cousin who works on a fishing trawler in Alaska, and as we open, Culann is disembarking (dear cruise ship industry: “debarking” is something you do to a dog, if you’re cruel) at the ass end of the world, ready to join his cousin in a new career of hauling fish and tossing shots. He soon finds that this particular ass end of the world is full of folks who are running from things, just like he is, from draft dodging to murder. Not that that makes him feel any more at home, but it’s something. When it comes time to board the ship, it’s all about fish, nets, and alcohol for a while, but Culann eventually finds out that the boat’s mysterious captain, rarely seen and never heard, has an ulterior motive in his meanderings that has little to do with fish…and the Culann and his cousin may be inadvertently influencing.
None of which has a blessed thing to do with dogs. You get to that part later; the first almost three-quarters of the book is setup, and it puts one far more in mind of historical fiction than bizarro (the obvious parallel here is to Moby-Dick, but if you listen hard enough while Culann is describing the town and its inhabitants, there are echoes of D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day, the bits of it that take place in the French harbor town). This is not a bad thing. Hlinak has a good feel for the pace of the story, and his sundry characters, even the minor ones, are competently-drawn and generally amusing, at least when they’re not causing our protagonist to come within inches of losing some fingers. But just when you start thinking this is yet another book about an outcast who has to adjust to a new society, Hlinak pulls out a couple of subplots that seemed at the beginning as if they were going to be set decoration more than anything else and slaps you upside the head with them. Here is where the book’s brevity (146pp.) does not do it service; each of those subplots could have easily taken up a novel of its own, as well as that whole “adjusting to a new society” gig (which never goes away, but necessarily changes direction about two-thirds of the way through the book), which could as well, and in many cases has. They synergize very well, and given that, this book could have easily been five or six times its present length and would probably still have not gotten to the depths of some of the ideas Hlinak flirted with here. In other words, I wanted more. And yes, that is a much better problem to have than “for the love of alsatians this thing went on way too long”, but if Hlinak ever decides to release a revised and expanded five-hundred-page edition of this book, I’ll be first in line to grab it. What is here, however, is very enjoyable and makes me look forward to whatever Hlinak offers up next. *** ½