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Review: Red Dog, Red Dog

Patrick Lane, Red Dog, Red Dog, McClelland&Stewart, 332 pp., $32.99

Patrick Lane stopped living in the Okanagan Valley around 1958, when he was about 20, but he has never left. The brutality of his childhood (alcoholic parents, abuse, petty criminality, poverty and the casual savagery of that time) shaped his adult years. He became an eloquent, acclaimed (and apparently very charming) poet who saw violence and cruelty everywhere he went, who used and abused lovers, family and friends, alcohol and cocaine, until about ten years ago when he entered rehab and emerged to write the beautifully tempered memoir, To Everything There is a Season—in which it seemed that the healing of gardening and meditation and love would finally release him from the valley of darkness.

But no. Immediately after finishing the memoir (a record of his first sober year in 45), Lane began to write this novel, which takes place over one week in 1958, in a small town in the B.C. interior. Red Dog, Red Dog begins with the unconsecrated burial of a starved baby and ends with the preparation of another wrecked body for a similar deposit in unyielding gravel and hard clay: “This is a desert land and good earth is hard to find.” The Stark family is not one for conventional niceties; by book’s end, the neglected apple orchard behind their rundown farmhouse on Ranch Road shelters the remains of at least five people. In this rough world, dogs are more likely to be honoured with grave markers than babies and men.

This is the story of two brothers (Tom and Eddy Stark), their buried infant sisters, their depressed alcoholic mother and violent alcoholic father, recounted as a layered sequence of events over a mere week (a wild three-day party, fights involving axes and guns, heroin scores, armed robbery, rape, dogfights and car chases) and the memories of  family secrets (immediate past and historical) that these events rip open for the brothers.  The novel is in part narrated by a buried baby, the only one to whom some secrets can be  told by the drunk and the dead. Redheaded boys, two red dogs—one at the beginning, one at the end of the book—and, mercifully, one calm, clear-eyed young woman and a kindly father figure are surrounded with a cast of craven reprobates, playing out their interwoven destinies in a moral and physical desert landscape.

The first time I read this book, I thought it was brilliant; the second time I was perplexed by my initial enthusiasm, and the third time I again found it astounding. There are excesses—although I am sure if I enumerated them (the man who collects human ears, the woman who suckles her four-year-old son and starves his siblings…) I would learn that the most awful details are things Lane knows to be true. There are times when you think, oh, enough, stop! could one more horrible thing possibly happen to this poor boy or girl or animal…but you read on because the writing compels you to do so. Lane has larded this account of almost incidental barbarity with layers of exquisite description, tenderness and acute insight. It is as if he has taken every single memory, secret and nightmare, every fragment of stories true and exaggerated from his past and crammed them into this tale.

It seems that it is Lane’s intention—within the compass of a single blasted week and the haunting, inescapable legacy of generations of embittered, mistreated men and women just trying to homestead, survive, and make families—to lay down a mythology, a history of a time and place that 21st century Canadians either have forgotten, or never known, or can scarcely believe. For those of us of a certain age, who grew up on the northern and western fringes of the scrubbed, preferred central Canadian narrative, this is, mostly, a credible, recognizable story. It is a story of terrible secrets (family business was nobody’s business in the 50s) and insouciant violence, endless vendettas both petty and profound, and shocking unkindness of man to woman, man to dog, mother to son, brother to brother, on and on it goes. It is ugly, verging on melodramatic and in Lane’s telling, only rarely redeemed by kindness, intelligence or love.

And yet. Several things lift this story out of its tragic muck into a book that demands the respect of close reading.

As a poet, writing his first novel at 69, Lane shows a masterful control of techniques of narrative. There are several complex set pieces, where volatile people are involved in violent acts over a period of time: There is the three-day party in the Stark farmhouse, the mother Lillian barricaded in her room with a stash of Seagrams 83 rye, cigarettes and not much to eat, the oldest son Eddy holding court in a heroin haze in his bedroom, the younger son Tom trying to manage the fights that break out while beginning a tentative relationship with the young woman named Marilyn. There is the harrowing account of the aftermath of an armed robbery committed by Eddy and his sidekick Harry, which takes Tom not only into the crime scene but into memories of his own father’s death he has suppressed for ten years. There is an extraordinary sequence of dogfights, the whole town, men, women and children gathering in a barn (storm clouds forming on the horizon) to watch and bet on dogs trained to kill one another, this whole edifying spectacle run by Billy, who is also Eddy’s heroin dealer. The tension in each of these scenes is extraordinary, as is Lane’s ability to create the visuals, sounds and smells and crisscrossing lines of emotional electricity. (It’s a Clint Eastwood film, really.)

But one of the most  perfectly written dramatic scenes is between Marilyn, Tom’s young woman and Lillian. Marilyn is fiercely scrubbing the kitchen, wearing an old apron she had found in a closet.
            She ignored Tom’s mother, who had come out of her room, covered in a shapeless dress. She seemed so much older than her own mother, the skin on the woman’s hands and face lined and worn. Her hair with so much grey in it. She sat now on a kitchen chair, a mug of coffee clasped in her hands as she watched Marilyn drag the cloth across the floor.
I put those birds on that apron when I was a girl a lot younger than you, she said, her voice loud. I cut and sewed and hemmed it and then I embroidered those birds.
Mother went on talking as if to herself, her voice adrift. It was a bird I’d seen before, she said, not like the ones in Ladies Home Companion. My mother always borrowed the magazine from a woman on the farm down the road. The bluebirds in it were nothing like the ones around our place.
                        She was still for a moment as she sucked on her cigarette.
                        They’re pretty enough, Marilyn said.

Over the next ten pages, the two women circle one another; Lillian talks about her dead children…. “My girls are dead, you know…A darkness took me up when they were born…” and Tom’s beloved red spaniel Docker, and more birds, and Marilyn scours the floor, “a pattern of linoleum arising from the grey froth…” and imagines a future here with Tom. “This house is dirty, Marilyn said. She looked up briefly, judging Tom’s mother and her careless ways….Go outside and get some sun, said Marilyn.” The balance of power has shifted.

Lane’s attention to detail is also that of a mature writer and poet; a young man might have written well about the complex bond between brothers in their 20s, but would he have clocked the beauty of fragile wasps crawling into the attic in the autumn, or noted  not just the apples withering in the orchards, but the difference between the Foxwhelps and the Northern Spies, the Gideons and Redchiefs, “fruit hanging heavy in their autumn skins.” 

Through all of this, Lane circles around the idea of storytelling, how children long for the stories of their families, but how damaging those stories can be and how hard to both tell and hear. “But mostly it was the silences…the sideways glance, the blink, the hesitation, the quick anger that told you there was something left unsaid, something you needed to know, but no matter your begging they never told you….You had to find it for yourself. You had to find the story.”