Book Review: Dog Run Moon
by Callan Wink
The Dial Press, 2016
Callan Wink’s Dog Run Moon is that slenderest of hot house flowers, the debut short story collection. Every publishing season sees a small handful of such debuts, wee sleekit tim’rous things wafting a hundred hours of over-caffeinated workshop parsings, stubbornly preserving ideas first scribbled in spiral-bound high school notebooks or pecked onto forgotten iMacs, burnished by the praise of a dozen talentless teachers and sex partners with compromised agendas. In a more sensible world, young authors would register such collections with some impartial database but never publish them; the books would be credited to their creative account, and the authors would be free to move on, either to more ambitious projects, ones that require plowing, seeding, and harvesting new ground, or to becoming talentless teachers themselves, ready in their turn to push more fledglings from the nest and hope some of them take flight.
As it is, books like Dog Run Moon appear in bookstores, in hardcover with winsome cover art and $30 price tags, and readers are immediately engaged in an elaborate ritual of deciphering tea leaves. Is that the faintest hint of an ear for dialogue? Is there a murmur of a knack for dramatic pacing? Yes, yes, none of these characters are well-realized, but is there the light impression that someday, after some rough tutelage or brutal divorce, the young author might bring his mannequins to life? Instead of the immersion that is the sole duty of fiction, these books provide mostly projection. We read them not in the present but in the future tense.
The word here, of course, is “promising” – it’s both the most and the least that the author of a debut short story collection can expect. Callan Wink has spent time at half a dozen or so writing residencies in the last decade; if he can’t manage to be promising in his first collection of short stories, he owes a lot of people money.
Dog Run Moon is promising. Its author has no sense of rhetorical style, no voice, not much willingness to differentiate one character from another, and no feel of storytelling timing on the page, but his prose has an appealingly whittled directness. His people do things for no reasons when he clearly thinks they’re just doing things for bad reasons, but he has a good eye for the little details of his people’s lives. His stories vividly evoke their natural settings. In “Runoff,” for instance, a character encounters a swollen creek:
He went down to the creek, slogged over the saturated ground, cold water rising above his boot tops. He could feel the trembling in the soil, the bushes rollicking in the flow, their roots trying to maintain their hold. A basketball came bobbing down the flat, turgid center of the creek – obscenely orange against the gray current – it caught for a moment against a branch, and then was gone. The creek that normally meandered sleepily through the backyards on this side of town had come awake, answering the call of the main river, bringing with it for tithe anything it could catch up.
(The moon likewise merits a mention in virtually every one of these stories, sometimes to poor effect, “It was a full moon, fat as a tick stuck to midnight’s flank,” and sometimes to slightly less-poor effect, “The moon overhead was a lopsided and misshapen orb that at any moment might lose its tenuous position and break upon the rocks”)
The collection’s best turn – the gesture that Wink has mastered even now – is the sudden, unexpected rush of breath in the midst of other things. A character in the American West is startled to watch a zebra emerge from a nighttime wood; a canopy of stars jars a character out of morose self-pity; in the collection’s title story, a man named Sid, out running at night with a stolen dog, has an abrupt vision:
The dog spooked a small herd of mule deer out of a dry creek bed and they bounded past him, covering great lengths of ground in each leap, their forms backlit against the sky now lightening in the east. Sid had never seen the desert deer move this close before. At the apex of each jump they seemed to hang, suspended, vaguely avian, a group of prehistoric nearbirds not quite suited to life on land, not quite comfortable with their wings’ ability to keep them aloft.
The main problem with most of these stories is – paradoxically, given their very intentionally trailer park mundanity – their unbelievability, or rather, their awareness that they’re stories in a book. Cheever early on had this same problem and was eager to grow out of it; more ominously, E. Annie Proulx, an obvious strong influence here, also had that same problem early on and has made a career out of shamelessly embracing it. Two roads diverge, in other words.
Sid, for instance, steals that dog, keeps the dog even after the owner finds out, and flees – naked, no less – into the night with the owner and his gun-toting associate in hot pursuit – all for no discernible reason whatsoever. The story dutifully tells us about a lost lady-love, but it doesn’t even begin to connect the two – it just seems to assume we’ll do that, as if stealing somebody’s dog and running naked with it into the night is a foreseeable course of action for the lovelorn, the kind of thing Dear Abby deals with four times a week.
In the collection’s longest story, “In Hindsight,” a woman named Lauren owns a small patch of Montana land in defiance of her spiteful stepson. She keeps livestock, including some steers, and she lives with two obliging mutts. As the story opens, she’s surprised to get a $1000 tax refund, and as she’s making her way home, she finds that her cattle have strayed off her property, so she goes to get them back:
She was behind them, waving her arms and hazing them back toward the fence. With some reluctance, they left the creek bottom and trudged in single file to their own rocky pasture. Lauren twisted the wire fence-ends back together. It had already broken once, and her mend had failed – and so she pulled the wire a little tighter to overlap the ends and then twisted. Fixing the fix. The definition of insanity was continuing to fix the fix.
When one of the steers wanders onto her stepson’s land, he shoots it dead and drags its body onto her front yard; when she dumps the body in a nearby gulch and scavengers gather, coyotes take her two mutts; when she spends her tax refund on trees to decorate her property, the cows stray again and trample the saplings. In other words, despite the story’s cleverly self-referential title, the source of 90 percent of Lauren’s troubles is her oblivious refusal to fix a pasture fence – which really is insanity, not some rich subterranean character flaw. If a character fails to make her probation meetings because she’s repeatedly gut-knifing herself back at home, your story is not about the probation meetings.
So: effective moments scattered amongst fairly pro forma debut shortcomings, and we look, as we always knew we would, to the future. And there are some dire signs. Callan Wink lives in Montana and works as a fly-fishing guide on the Yellowstone River, and he’s the owner of a resolutely standard batch of short stories. And yet he’s been the recipient of a Stegner Fellowship, an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and “In Hindsight” was the first work of fiction in the New Yorker‘s online-only “New Yorker Novella” series. In his author photos, he wears plaid shirts, jeans, and boots and seems far more likely to go bull-riding than infinitive-splitting. In his book’s Acknowledgements, he writes, “To all the fishing guides, here’s to another season on the river – keep living the dream. If this book sells any copies, drinks at the Murray are on me.” The copy-selling business is helped along by back-jacket blurbs, in which Jim Harrison makes mention of “Fine, old-fashioned rich and juicy fiction,” Thomas McGuane says the stories have a style that sets them “well apart from the cerebral finger-painting of so much literary fiction,” and Ron Rash says they remind him of “expertly tied trout flies.”
All of which points to the tiresomely traditional pathology of the literary world hating its own Upper East Side etiology. Callan Wink deserves better than to be that pathology’s latest manque. If it’s a choice between that and rounds at the Murray, better to stick with fishin’.