The Dogs of Detroit by Brad Felver
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

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Book cover of Dogs of DetroitThe Dogs of Detroit by Brad Felver
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Short fiction
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018
$21.95, 184 pages
ISBN: 9780822945420

If you had to describe Brad Felver’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize-winning collection of short stories in one word, that word might be “grim.” In these stories people are coming to terms with grief, with loss, with violence, especially with their own confusion. The protagonists are often guys who hang drywall and kill animals, family farmers and laborers, guys with calluses on their hands, dirt and animal guts under their fingernails and worked into their cuticles. Husbands and wives, fathers and sons, siblings are all trying to make sense of relationships that have slipped beyond their control. In the story, “Praemonitus, Praemunitus,” the narrator watches as his son, who has decided to take up cage fighting, is being beaten to a pulp, and he feels his own “primeval lust for violence” take hold of him. He reflects, “And when I turned to my bleeding son, he would most certainly recognize me as his father, as that most savage of all predators.”

Indeed, it is the stories in which sons come to terms with their fathers that Felver’s stories are their grimmest and best. In “Throwing Leather,” another story about ritualized fighting that takes place on a dirt-poor farm in Montana, a wild kid named Charley beats up his mother, and the father figure (The narrator Jack’s mother and Charley’s father were killed in a car accident, probably involved in an extramarital affair, and Jack’s father took Charley and his mother Starla in under his roof) punishes Charley, whose leg is caught in a bear trap. Talk about savage.

In “The Era of Good Feelings” a son is trying to bury his father in the family plot. He lives with his mother on an Ohio farm that has been in the family for two centuries, and they are now about to lose the property — forced to sell. So again these characters are all broke, and the business of death is such an expensive proposition. But at the end, the son, Ralph, who is confused about so many things, not the least of which is the nubile student in the American Government class he teaches at the high school, a girl who brazenly flirts with him, comes to terms with his father’s memory. “There was no headstone, not for my father, not for anyone else, but I knew who was where.” A memory of his father’s quiet heroism comforts him.

In “Unicorn Stew” and “Stones We Throw” the father figure again provides comfort to the distressed teenaged protagonists. Both are coming to terms with loss and the awareness of their own powerlessness, in their respective stories.

The title story begins, “Nights when Polk cannot hunt the dogs, he instead attacks his father.” We read about bloody, violent encounters between the two. The protagonist, Polk, is another troubled teenage boy in impoverished circumstances.

These are all very elemental relationships in Felver’s fiction, so raw you can see the blood. It’s why the characters are so intent on developing calluses. “Despair scabs over grief when we need it to,” Ralph, the narrator of “The Era of Good Feelings” observes. In “Out of the Bronx” the protagonist rejects his family who are “bottom of the food chain poor,” trying desperately to escape from them, going to college upstate, ceasing all contact with them. In “Hide and Seek” estranged brothers from lower class Boston encounter each other in an airport lounge. The narrator, Johnny, resents his older brother Warren and remembers hateful things about him even as they get sentimentally drunk. They remember the Christmas their other brother was killed in a car accident. The wounds never heal, though they try desperately to “scab over the grief,” develop unfeeling calluses.

Relations between men and women are also painful. Frequently, the man and woman are from different, seemingly incompatible social backgrounds. In “Queen Elizabeth,” a poor midwestern boy falls for a woman from a Boston Brahmin family (“the easy contempt that New Englanders reserve for Midwesterners”). It’s the death of their daughter that drives the final nail into the coffin of their marriage. In “Country Lepers,” a hog-butcher’s wife finally leaves him when she sees that he will never aspire to the social pretensions she values. “She wanted to train me into some refined fop who liked art and Russian opera,” the narrator complains. “She’s cosmopolitan, I’m rural.”

But there is also a dark humor in many of these stories that takes the sting out of the desperate circumstances. “Country Lepers,” for instance, is written in the form of a confession by Marty, the narrator, to the “bald museum docent” his wife has left him for, and some of the writing is wickedly funny. Marty is a wise-ass, just like Johnny, the narrator of “Hide and Seek.” Both are a little too “wise” for their own good, hence the comedy. Similarly, sadsack Ralph, the narrator of “The Era of Good Feelings” makes us smile at his confusion. “Sometimes when we aren’t paying attention,” he notes, “grief and desire and shame mutate and become one big dirty puddle.” Like Johnny in “Hide and Seek,” Ralph has a complicated relationship with his brother. He’s also balancing his lust for his student and his grief for his father, his worries about his mother and the family farm.

At the heart of this patchwork quilt of strife, violence, love and grief between siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives looms the big question, what exactly is a “family,” under all that drama? There are so many strange configurations of people in these stories. A line in “Praemonitus, Praemunitus” might sum it all up. The narrator notes that his Brazilian buddy (his son’s cage-fighting trainer) hasn’t seen his wife or sons in seven years. The narrator’s ex lives in Oregon, across the country from these Midwesterners. He reflects: “We meet new people, use them to putty over the holes in our families.”