My mother was the one who sent me Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF.  She had heard him on NPR, called me that day and told me about the interview.  Then she read the book and it was all over for her, true love.  It’s sort of like my daughter with Justin Bieber.  KNOCKEMSTIFF is a captivating, extraordinary book that will knock you over but, amazingly, Donald Ray Pollock’s second book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, is even better.  It was a pleasure to talk to Donald Ray Pollock about his new book.  He is modest, kind, and one of those people whose success makes you happier than it does jealous.

My birthday is a good time to inventory my accumulated wisdom. Sadly, there ain’t much. The longer I live, the less I know. But what I do know will fit quite comfortably here.

I will spare you the obvious. If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you. I will omit those issues that divide us, such as whose politics rocks harder and which religion has the most vengeful god. And I won’t go anywhere near the stockpile of trivia that chokes my brain, things that would only appeal to specialists, like batting averages, chess openings, and how to put a positive spin on disco.

What’s left? The Magnificent 7: Seven items that I hope will have some practical use for someone other than me. Keep in mind that everything I’m about to say flows from the perspective of a heterosexual, Jewish, innately lazy married male with no children and you should be fine.

Ready? Here we go!

Item 1: Get a dog. No matter how you feel about life on any given day, if you own a dog you will have to feed the dog. You’ll have to walk the dog. You’ll have to adopt a schedule that benefits the dog. When you’re standing in the rain and the cold searching your pockets for a plastic bag, you won’t be mired in existential dread, you’ll be thinking about how good it’ll be to get back inside where it’s warm and dry. A dog will teach you to savor the little things that make this life so sweet.

Don’t like dogs? Get a cat. A cat has a very different lesson to teach, and that lesson is: You are not important.

Item 2: Volunteer. When you’re younger it’s difficult to find the time and the motivation to volunteer. It gets easier as you get older. This is why retired people often claim they’re so busy, they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. Finding the volunteer activity that suits you best could be a lengthy process, but I’ve found a way to speed it up. Volunteer for three to six things over the next year or two. At the end of that time you’ll know which one you want to pursue. Do that one and drop the rest.

Remember the secret to volunteering: It’s not true that we get more from volunteering than what we put in. Sometimes we feel we’re getting very little back. Sometimes we feel empty. Sometimes we feel aggravated. No matter what you feel, volunteering always does someone some good. That’s why you should do it. Don’t feel appreciated after a particularly tough effort? Remember what the cat taught you.

Item 3: Wide world of men. Women: Stop complaining that men are simple. Granted, my gender is not as complicated as yours. But if men were as complicated as women, there’d be no human race. And stop reading Cosmo. They say they can explain men, but they’re lying.

Item 4: Women 101. Men: Listen up, simpletons. Stop wondering what women want and ask them. The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!

Item 5: What to do after you say “I do.” On the day I got married, we had two friends in attendance who’d been married for 23 years. We thought they were an old married couple. Today, they’ve been married 46 years and we’ve been married 23. What makes a marriage work? All I can tell you is that you should never spend a dollar on a book, a class, a seminar, or on anyone who promises you the answer, because there is none. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. It might not even work for me next year. I suggest you take the money you were going to spend on the book, class, etc. and take your partner to dinner or dancing or to the beach. That I know will work.

Item 6: How to go to bed. Every day, do one thing you give a damn about. It may take you an hour, it make take you a few minutes. Do it. When you shut your eyes at night, the next-to-the-last thing you think of should be that thing you did. The last thing should be expressing your thanks to whatever or whomever you thank when the lights go out. Accomplishment and gratitude are two of the three most important ingredients for a good night’s sleep. (The third is exiling the person who snores.)

Item 7: Your 3am panic attack. What do you do when you can’t sleep, you can’t stop thinking about what you haven’t done or may never do or the people you’ve lost, the walls are closing in and you can’t breathe? Get out of bed. Move. Do not activate anything with a screen. Wash the dishes. Play the piano. Brush your teeth. Go for a walk. You can walk in your neighborhood at 3am. Statistically, it’s the safest time of the day to walk.

Don’t want to walk alone? Item 1: Get a dog!

Brad Listi (BL): Three minutes, ladies and gentlemen.

Stewart O’Nan (SO): Gotta warm up my Magic 8-ball.

BL: (He’s not referring to cocaine, ladies and gentlemen.)

SO: I was gonna say — not a Belushi reference.

Contrary to popular belief, the most dominant dog in any given pack is rarely the first one you notice.

Like any dictator, an alpha dog may be either benevolent or tyrannical, but unlike many human dictators, alpha dogs are never emotionally fragile, touchy, needy, or exceptionally demonstrative.  They just don’t generally stick out unless something has gone seriously awry.


As I mentioned in my wildly popular first column (nine different Viagra spammers linked to it from southern China), my wife and I agreed that if I moved into her little yellow house on the edge of the Nordic floe known as Finland, she’d sort of support me while I kind of wrote my novel. Happily, we both fulfilled our contracts. Sadly, as many of you writer and reader types know, the publishing industry moves at the curmudgeonly tempo of a thawing mammoth. Which is another way of saying my Golden Ticket® has yet to arrive. Which is another way of saying I’m broke and desperate.

Thus I’ve come to an icy, vague, windswept crossroads of sorts. One path leads to some horrid, rend-your-soul-in-half corporate serfdom; the second leads to language school; the last one leads to a computer where I can sit and repeatedly email my agent to see if any editors have changed their minds.

While learning the native language of the country in which I’m living seems like a good idea, after seven years of higher education I’m not exactly itching to squeeze my aging skeleton into a kiddie desk for the next – not kidding – five hundred weekdays. For six to eight hours per day. Plus studying time.

Despite the rich, multi-textured dread that language school evokes, I’ve begrudgingly begun the enrollment process, which begins with an interview and some paperwork. That interview is then followed up by a meeting in which you fill out more paperwork discussing your most recent interview. That meeting is followed by an interview discussing the most recent paperwork. If all goes well, and the door to the office you’re in actually unlocks, you then return for another interview and a “language test” that can best be described as a “circle-the-word-that-is-spelled-identically-to-the-one above” test. It’s so easy that our Insane Russian Dogs could do it while gnawing on the underside of the sofa. It’s so easy you leave feeling deeply, truly stupid. I really hope I passed.

During these interviews and meetings and paperwork sessions I have been repeatedly asked what I do for a living. I won’t lie: I live for this question. Despite the fact that I rarely get paid to write, and despite the fact that my book doesn’t yet exist, and perhaps never will, I still like to give myself the cute little label of “writer –novelist.” (Some days I spend hours making these labels with my wife’s glitter pens and posing in the bathroom mirror. My author photo alone will win awards.)

So when an interviewer asks this question, my eyeballs start to shake and my heart hopscotches. I sit up straight, tilt my head eleven degrees to the northeast, and tell them exactly who I think I am.

Interviewer nods, types.

You might think such an inarguable testament of identity would be grounds for further discussion. You might think that in a country where the literacy rate is 100% – a country that reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the world – some might consider it interesting to find an aspiring semi-young American writer in their foggy midst. Fantasy and reality, however, rarely feed from the same trough. Outside of these bureaucratic settings – in two years of living in Finland – only a single person has asked me what I do, or don’t do, for a non-living. Family, friends, the children we hire to clean the polar bear’s cage – doesn’t matter. Instead we discuss: hockey, snow, snow-hockey, hockey pucks made from compacted snow, and hockey that is played on the pavement during the five summer days in which there is no snow. If I want to talk about my meta-career, I have to corner some reindeer in the back yard and bribe them with fried blueberries.

Making matters worse is the fact that my wife, who never dreamed of writing books, has not only published her first hugely successful cookbook, but has begun work on her follow-up. Instead of asking about my non-existent book, people ask me which of my wife’s dishes I am going to massacre tonight.

I am humbled by my inadequacy.

Most days it feels selfish and petty to complain about such problems when so many people are involved in much direr circumstances – revolutions, earthquakes, polar bear attacks. At the same time, writing is my own personal anarchy, a way to subsist outside of systems. Of course such a notion is purely illusion, as the only way my writing will make it to publication is via a series of systems – agent, publisher, retailer, etc. And yet again it’s a system I can abide by, one that is leaps and bounds beyond the systems I’ve spent my whole life trying to escape. Systems like the ones in which I’ve found myself entrenched since arriving in Finland.

Right now the Finnish Language System is on the horizon. Fortunately, since all of Finland remains encased in three meters of ice, I’ve got time to sit and fret and scheme. Unfortunately, Russia recently sent over a nuclear icebreaker to smash apart the ocean and bring with it the first rays of spring sunlight. In the process they’ll probably run across my career. I can only hope that when it thaws out, it isn’t already dead.

I wear many hats. Not necessarily well, but I wear them. One of the hats I wear is that of “technical writer.” Recently, I got a gig writing for the company Intel, which as everyone knows makes those smallish, sort of alien-looking things that are inside your computer making it run–microprocessors. That’s really all the Average Joe knows about Intel–it’s a company full of smart people that helps make their computers run–and that’s about all he cares to know.

Dear Dust

 

I was just reading about how that guy on FOX, Tucker Carlson, said that he thought Michael Vick should “have been executed,” for his role in the whole dog-fighting thing. Carlson then goes on to hammer Obama for saying Vick deserves a second chance. I’m an animal lover, so for a long time I hated Vick, too. But I do think people can learn and change. Our society tends to want to throw away what’s uncomfortable instead of dealing with it. What do you think?

 

Lassie

Beware of Dog

By Becky Palapala

Essay

In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me.  One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.

“That’s cynical.”

or

“You’re a cynic.”

I live with a roommate, her three kids, and their two dogs. One pooch is a shy husky and the other is a squirrely black pit bull mix. Both of them are sweethearts. The kids are in their teens. Two dudes, one chick. Total count: Five human beings and two dogs. It’s a full-house. I’ve never lived with this many people. I maxed out at four people back when I lived at home. Being an extremely private person this has taken some getting used to. Bodies thumping down the hallway. Voices laughing and arguing. Doors opening and shutting.

I hole myself up in my room, open up a book, and dive in between the pages. Or I’ll flick on the TV and watch A&E, the History Channel, ESPN. Tune in the Travel Channel for a sarcastic dose of Anthony Bourdain; the Biography Channel to look into the mad life of Ted Kaczynski. Or I’ll attempt to write something, push out a poem; take on a snappy bout with some flash fiction. Take out my guitar and see if she wants to play with me.

I was watching The Darjeeling Limited when my phone rang. It was Kim my roommate.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said, in a gentle voice.

“What is it?”

“I’m bringing home two puppies. They’re cute, Reno. Are you mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” I said, my mind seeing cluttered images and calculating the math. Five human beings and four dogs. Nine beasts total. “Hey, no problem.”

And it wasn’t a problem. The puppies weren’t mine. They were gifts for the two oldest kids. The dogs were their responsibility. They were the ones who had to deal with the ups and downs of puppy rearing. All I knew is those little fuckers wouldn’t be pissing and shitting in my room. This I knew. Around ten minutes later Kim pulled up. I heard the puppies running around the house. Immediately after, I heard the typical demands that comes with bringing puppies into your life. Through the walls I found out their names.

“Hey! No! Stop that! Charlie!”

“Ziggy! No! Come lay down, baby! Ziggy!”

Damn, I thought. Here we go.

Then I heard shuffling and sniffing at my door. It was the husky and the pit bull. Chance and Tazz. They wanted nothing to do with the puppies and wanted in. I opened the door and they took their respective spots with agitated looks on their faces.

“What happened, fellas? Yeah, I know. This is how it works, brothers. Out with the old and in with the new. Hear me out now. I’m giving you pearls.”

Chance is as soft as they come. All he wants is pets, gourmet meals, and to sleep on the biggest fluffiest bed in the house. He’s a husky, but could give a damn about snow, the outdoors, Siberia. He has no interest in such things. He likes watching TV and staring at the refrigerator. Tazz, on the other hand, is nuts. I love his energy. He huffs and puffs, chases squirrels and lizards, makes wild sounds when he yawns and is always looking to mix it up. There’s a goat that lives behind us and Tazz is all up in its business. When I let him out he bolts to the fence and gawks at it, his amber eyes ablaze with animal desire.

“You wanna poke that goat, huh?” I asked him when we were alone. “I see that. Well, don’t worry, bro, I ain’t saying shit. Your secrets are safe with me.”

He looked at me with yes and thank you all over his mug.

After a week into the puppies keeping their owners up all night and dropping turds and leaving puddles of piss in their rooms the honeymoon was all but over. Reality set in.

“Charlie! No! You can’t have that! Charlie!

“Oh, no, Ziggy! I just took you outside! Really?”

I told Kim that we might have to call the Dog Whisperer. Give that oddball (I actually think he’s pretty cool) a ring and have him do his magic. I told Kim our conversation would go something like this:

“Hi, my name is Cesar…”

“Yeah, I know who you are. See those two babies, Millan? Good. Fix them. Their owners can’t handle them. They bark, sniff, fart, play grabass. You’ve heard this story before. OK, so I’m gonna go to the bar and get my drink on if you know what I mean. So do your thing. There’s wine and frozen taquitos in the fridge. Help yourself. You have my cell number. Call me when they’re cured.”

Kim was rolling.

“You crazy ass.”

My father always brought animals home. Be it a neurotic cat, a blind dog, or a chicken that had no visible legs. One day he brought a chicken home. He named her Henny. I called her Linda No Legs. He found her on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. She was just sitting in the sand and watching the traffic pass by. My father saw her, threw a U-turn, and brought her home.

Linda No Legs was injured and couldn’t stand, her legs tucked into her belly. He would pick her up and place her wherever he saw fit. Sometimes she’d be in the living room relaxing in a milk crate. Other times when he felt she could use some fresh air he’d put her in the backyard. She was like a duffel bag. Our two dogs were in utter confusion. They didn’t know what the fuck to think looking at a chicken sitting in front of a bowl of feed and a bowl of water. They were mystified.

I don’t know how long the picking up and laying down of Linda No legs lasted, but one day we looked out in the backyard and there she was strolling around pecking at the dirt and stretching out her wings. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was a miracle! The dogs were in a complete state of shock. Not only was Linda No Legs walking, but her newfound mobility cranked up her confidence and she immediately took charge of the backyard. It was hers and she let it be known. She scratched the ground with gumption, walked in and out of the dogs’ house, jumped on top of it, flexed her wings, sprinted across the yard like Carl Lewis, and corralled the dogs to the corner of the yard. It was crazy.

“Jesus,” I told my mom. “I’ve seen it all now.”

My father also brought home a blind poodle which cottoned to my mom, relieving him of the responsibilities of dealing with a dog with a major handicap.

He did pawn off two animals on me because over time he found them to be his nemeses. One was a chihuahua named Buster. I called him Boohea. He was a good-looking dog with a barrel chest and big brown eyes. But Boohea had a problem: he was a sex addict and was always sucking himself off or fucking our labrador. He’d blow himself into a frenzy and his crayon would scream out of his body throbbing under the hot desert sun. It was foul. It disgusted the whole household. And when he wasn’t in the mood to give himself a hummer he’d nip at Jet’s hind legs until he would lay down. Boohea would then mount one of his hind legs and do his thing. This also disgusted the whole household. No matter how many times we yelled and pleaded with Boohea to stop sucking his dick or to quit banging Jet he wouldn’t.

He needed therapy.

He was sick.

And he was mine.

This went on for years.

Then there was a neurotic cat named Maxine. I called her Muga. Or Muga the Sooka. My father brought Muga home for my sister who was a little girl at the time. He got her from his sister who was a crazy pill-popping, beer drinking bitch that had three equally jacked up kids. They all lived under the same roof. Muga was screwed from day one. Anybody or anything living in the droopy frazzled shadow of my aunt was doomed to a life of substance abuse, paranoia, and full-blown depression. I can’t say Muga swallowed benzos or reds or licked booze on the quiet, but she had a thing for rubber dishwashing gloves. After the first taste she was hooked and was always pawing at the cupboards for another fix.

“Why does she eat my gloves?” my mom inquired, examining some gloves that had the fingers ripped off of them.

“She was born into a dysfunctional home, mom, and there’s not a damn thing we can do,” I said reflectively. “We just have to ride it out.”

But Muga soon became my cat when she started shitting in the living room. She was particularly fond of dropping a deuce behind my father’s beloved La-Z-Boy chair. I don’t know what got into her. We always kept her crapper clean. We never neglected her. She all of a sudden went through these spurts when laying down a few dumps around the house was the thing to do. It was like a hobby of sorts. At the time my father was working graveyard and I’d hear him get up (he always woke up pissed off), thud around the house sniffing deeply, trying to locate Muga’s latest steamer. He always announced his discoveries and ended his rants by calling out my name so I could get Muga before he ended her life right then and there.

“Shit! Son of a bitch! Fuckin’, Muga! Shitass cat! Reno! Reno! Come and get your damn cat before I kill her!”

She, too, needed therapy.

She, too, was sick.

And like Boohea she was also mine.

This also went on for years.

I hope that neither Charlie nor Ziggy have a thing for their own peckers or rubber dishwashing gloves. Or acquire any hang-up for that matter. I wish for them to grow up as normal as possible. There’s a touch of craziness rattling through this house and I hope they look beyond this and move into the future with ease. I also hope that none of them gets a wild hair up their ass and think they can nip at Tazz and mount one of his legs. He already told me that he won’t play that shit.

My wife and I recently had a wedding here in Finland. We’d already been married in the eyes of America last winter, but we decided that we wanted more gifts, so we did it again.

Instead of going on a honeymoon or paying the mortgage, we also decided to give gifts to ourselves. For a long time it was a toss-up between a solar-powered hydrofoil or a refurbished Ukrainian tank, but in the end we decided to get two dogs. That way we could stuff them under the blankets to help thaw our feet after walking to the bathroom.

Raisa immediately starting perusing the ads on an online adoption site, but she wasn’t satisfied with your average Canis lupus familiaris bearing two ears, a tail, and fur in all the right places. No, she wanted the ones with bits of tongue missing and prison tattoos where their balls used to be. Within minutes her heart was set on two gnarly looking Russian dogs being extradited for matters of national security.

Desperate for help, I made some hot chocolate, crawled under the sink (it’s warmer there), and wrote a letter to Santa Claus, known in Finland as Yule Goat.* Mr. Goat has an office in Northern Finland, so I figured my request for two fluffy, photogenic, poop-free dogs would be expedited.

Alas, it was not to be. By the time my ink fob had thawed, Raisa had already paid for our dogs via RublePal, rendering the deal all but done. Now all we had to do was meet the dog dealers near an abandoned munitions factory along the Finland-Russian border, sign a non-disclosure/non-litigation agreement, and take our animals and their troughs home.

As we made our long and arduous journey through the Finnish countryside, I mentioned to Raisa that the deal seemed a bit shady. She told me not to worry, since Finland is considered the the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world. However, the closer you get to the Russian border, the grayer the market becomes. As do the trees, the food, and the atmosphere. We drove for hours through rain and fog and icicle storms, and when we got within 10 km of Russia, the GPS told us to turn around and never look back.

Undeterred, we navigated via dead reckoning toward the heavily guarded tower on the horizon. When we finally did locate the meeting point, we found one Cadillac-size dog squeezed into a Fiat and the other chasing his shadow through a poppy field. We managed to lure the animals into our car with hunks of maggoty reindeer flesh, at which point the dogs promptly went about tearing some skin from each others faces (which Raisa said is a custom in their home country).

While the dogs tended to their wounds, I finally asked Raisa why exactly these dogs were being given up for adoption. She told me not to worry about it, but when my wife tells me not to worry about something, it means that something is deeply, truly wrong.

Turns out that when the youngest of our Russian canines is left alone, he tends to rip knobs off doors, shred clothes, and tear pipes out of walls before finally opening a window and leaping to his freedom. At one point there was evidence of these crimes, such as photographs and insurance claims, but he ate those too. The other guy, an older hunting dog with a litany of scars and claw marks decorating his face like tribal tattoos, has never learned basic commands. Or his name, apparently. He mostly just stands there smiling and wagging his crooked, truncated tail while we beg him to climb down from the top of the television.

Luckily, both dogs know not to take their massive dumps in the house. Unfortunately, like many Russians, the dogs have terrible smoking habits** and prefer potato spirits over boring old water. Despite these deleterious traits, the dogs are as strong as Mongolian llamas. They’re also ludicrously competitive: on our daily 100-km jogs, they insist on chasing down every runner and cyclist and tearing the rubber off the athletes’ shoes (or wheels). When we really want to wear out the dogs, we yoke them up with the polar bear and have the trio plow our street.

I personally share a special kinship with these dogs, being a fellow expatriate***. The dogs and I often gather in a drunken heap on the floor and reminisce about our respective motherlands, which have been at war since before the sun was born. Sometimes, when the discussion lands on on current transnational commerce barriers or disarmament talks circa 1988-1993, the mood grows downright ugly. Fur flies. Flesh is ripped. Epithets are hurled. Curses are unleashed. Raisa is forced to send us to our respective cages. After a good nap though, we forget what the fuss was about. Our comradeship survives another day.

Yes, we love our Russian dogs. (If we don’t, who the fuck will?)

 

* Yule goat – a frighteningly ugly little beast – actually demands gifts from children.

**And Finland is increasingly becoming a bad place to be a smoker, even if you’re a dog. Strangely, the Finnish government is striving to eradicate smoking from its borders, despite the fact that marathons, bike races and quilting bees are all conducted while the participants are puffing away. The dogs had better be careful though, as it will soon be a crime to give a cigarette to an underage smoker (seven years old or younger) or to smoke on your balcony (which is strange since 75% of the country is covered in forest and the other 25% is balconies). In the near future you won’t even see cigarettes in stores unless the cashier is getting them out of the kryptonite safe beneath the register. The dogs are worried.

***Whenever I call myself that, I feel like I’ve betrayed my country, or have been fired from a football team.

Shades

It’s six o’clock in the morning, way too early for me. I’m not used to not seeing the sun yet. I wore sunglasses when I left the house, but it’s too dark for them. So now I’m wearing the sunglasses tucked behind my shirt collar, because the sun will come up soon. It’s my dog Dunkin’s first walk and so he poops. We’re on our way to the parking garage, and so he poops in front of the highrise condo tower. As always. When I stoop to collect the poop with my hand in a blue plastic bag, my sunglasses slide out from my shirt collar. Onto the poop. It’s too early in the morning to be angry. Or to laugh. I stare at the glasses sitting on the poop and think about abandoning them. But I do like them, I’ve had them for ten years.

Confession

I didn’t want a dog. I really didn’t. I wanted one when I was six, seven, eight, nine, and ten years old. My mother didn’t budge. Because of the germs. The slobber. The dirt under the paws. Because I was at school all day.

Dunkin fell in love with Sanaz, my wife. He’s okay with me, but it took him two years to be okay with me. It took me two years to be okay with him. Maybe longer. When he’s alone with me he looks depressed.

We have an understanding now. We both understand that I will never match up with my wife. It’s our little joke. I’m happiest when, before falling asleep, I can hear him snore.

Smell

Dogs can smell death on people. Even Hemingway knew that and put it in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Whenever Dunkin avoids me or won’t come close, I get nervous.

 

Belt

When we got Dunkin he was already four years old. When we moved to L.A. he wouldn’t come near my closet. I would open the closet and he would leave the room. It took me a month, two months to realize the closet was the place where I hung my belt. My pants have been sliding down ever since.

 

L.A.

In Michigan, he was just a dog. In L.A. people come up to touch them. They ask his breed. His age. They run their fingers through his fur. Women coo, smile as though he’s been winking at them. They ask to be photographed with him. They forget about me while I’m taking their picture.

Chinook

The first three years my wife and I had our dog, we believed him to be a mutt. That’s what they told us at the Humane Society on Cherry Road in the Michigan backwater. Part German Shepherd, part Golden Retriever. Tan and white. He was found in Detroit under a bridge, ribs showing through his coat, keeping a dead dog company. I loved that story as much as our actual dog.

Dunkin is well-trained, well-behaved, timid and patient. How did he get away? How did he get this way? He’s so perfect, it was good to know he was a mutt. Smarter than the fancy dogs. A dog not for shows but for daily use.

But now we’ve learned he’s a pure-bred. A rare breed at that. In 1981, there were only 23 Chinooks left.

It’s as if what you thought was your daily coffee mug turns out to be a Ming vase. What do you do with it now, and what do you use for drinking coffee?

He seems worth more, I like saying ‘Chinook’ and explaining the New Hampshire origins of the breed. We’ve wasted so much time of our time together already.


I think the first sentence of Jim Harrison’s novel, The Road Home, is sublime: “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.”  Harrison’s observation puts a twist on an old adage, reminding me that my pace to likely oblivion is a crawl compared to the sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this recently after spending much of the night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder storm. A dog afraid of a storm is enslaved to terrible demons. At one point she attempted to climb the vertical drawers of an open closet to seek refuge amongst the sweaters and tee-shirts. Maggie has tremors when she’s afraid and her whole body becomes racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws around her vitals. Her ears lay back astride her sleek skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone, a hard stone, granite or marble. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightening too tormented her. Perhaps she made the connection that lightening is followed by thunder. Now, even a rising breeze prompts an anxiousness from her. I wonder at it all. I doubt dogs have the cognitive powers to associate a storm with anything other than noise and flashes of light. They can’t draw conclusions, presumably, and certainly not arrive at metaphor.  A storm is a storm–nothing else, for a dog.

Crime Dog

By Bruce DeSilva

Writing

Say Hello to Brady.  He’s a pure-bred Bernese Mountain Dog, and he turns one year old this week. When we got him, he was eight weeks old and about the size of a loaf of pumpernickel. Now he’s a hundred and ten pounds and still growing.

From the moment I laid eyes on him, he had my heart. And now he’s sneaked into the crime novel I’m writing.

It happened when my protagonist, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, was trying to figure out how to introduce himself to Peggy, a perky young secretary who works for a guy Mulligan thinks is up to no good. As a former investigative reporter myself, I knew that when you can’t get the goods on someone the easy way–from the cops or from documents–the best sources of information are ex-wives and disgruntled employees. Mulligan didn’t know if Peggy was disgruntled, but he was determined to find out.

So he was hanging around outside her apartment building in Providence, R.I. one afternoon, trying to decide what to say when he knocked on her door. Suddenly the door swung open and out stepped Peggy with a dog on a leash. At first, it was a small dog, so Mulligan bent down to pet it. Then I looked at Brady, who was sitting on my feet as I wrote, and had a better idea. I deleted the paragraph and started again.

This time the apartment door flew open and an enormous Bernese Mountain Dog burst out, dragging the perky young blonde down the steps. The dog was just a pup, maybe nine months old, but he was already closing in on a hundred pounds. He took one look at Mulligan and bolted straight for him.  Peggy shouted “Brady, no!” but Brady wasn’t listening. He kept coming, ears and big pink tongue flopping. She outweighed him, but not by much, and he was a lot stronger. He dragged her right to Mulligan. Good doggie. Mulligan squatted on his heels to meet him. The dog draped his front paws over the reporter’s shoulders and worked that tongue in his ear. “Brady!” Peggy said again, and tugged on the leash with no discernible effect. “He can’t help himself,” Mulligan said. “Dogs and women love me.” The perfect introduction.

Since the real Brady came to live with me, he’s helped me with a lot of things. He’s great company when my wife is on the road. He’s brought joy to our 15-year-old girl. He sniffed out a box turtle that became a welcome guest in our house for a week before we released him into the wild. Brady gets me up from the computer to take him on walks, exercise we both badly need. I’d tell you that he is a great chick magnet if I weren’t worried that my wife might read this. And now he’s helping me write the sequel to “Rogue Island” (Forge, Oct. 12).

I’ve lived with dogs most of my life. On my fourth birthday, my father surprised me with a little black mutt that I ingeniously named Blackie. He was a terror. Snarled at visitors. Killed and ate our neighbor’s chickens. Chased cars, getting sideswiped by tires. And died in his sleep at the age of 17.

Later, I raised Border Collies. Our Sadie, progeny of Scottish champions, had great litters. Some of her pups went on to become obedience champions, and one ended up making commercials in Hollywood. I kept two of Sadie’s pups, Poco and Panda. Mama and the pups were all smart (everything you have heard about the breed is true), but Poco was a genius among dogs. When I trimmed the hedge, she’d try to help by jumping up and tearing at the branches. When I picked strawberries in our garden, she’d pluck them with her mouth and drop them in my basket. When I husked corn, she’d grab an ear, brace it with her front paws, and tear the husks away with her teeth. Anything to lend a hand.

Back then, I was working out of my house in Massachusetts, covering eastern and northern New England for a newspaper in another state. I was one of those writers who needed to read his stories out loud to someone so I could hear how the words sounded when they came out of my mouth. But often I was alone at home with the dogs.

So I’d call Poco and say, “sit.” Poco would sit. I’d say, “stay,” and Poco would stay. Then I’d read my story to her, and Poco would listen to my voice, cocking her head as if she were fascinated by every line. For a while there, I was worried I might have to save for her college tuition.

Twelve years ago, I moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets and stayed there for ten years. Boy did I miss having a dog. So last summer, after we bought a house in a nice suburban town in New Jersey, the very next thing we got for ourselves was Brady.

You can learn a lot about people by how they treat dogs. The same goes for fictional characters.

So when I started writing my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” dogs inevitably worked their way into the story. In that book, Mulligan pines for Rewrite, the Portuguese Water Dog his harpy of an ex-wife doesn’t care for but keeps out of spite. And a mutt named Sassy, looking like a cross between a German Shepard and a Humvee, figures significantly into one of the sub-plots. Rewrite reappears in the last lines of the book–lines that Ken Bruen, Irish master of noir, calls “as callous as I ever read, and perfectly fitting.”

In the sequel I’m writing now, tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” an aging bookie named Zerilli adopts a big mutt from the pound.

“Got a name for him yet?” Mulligan asks.

“Calling him Shortstop.”

“How come?”

“‘Cause Centerfielder’s a stupid fuckin’ name.”

Zerilli got the dog to guard his place at night, but it’s not working. The dog loves everybody. Mulligan almost asks if Zerilli is going to keep the dog, but from the way the bookmaker’s fingers are working behind the dog’s ears, he already has his answer.

And the reader has learned something important about Zerilli.

I could tell you more about all this, but Brady is tugging at my pants leg. It’s time to go for a walk.



I’m a writer, and I’m scared to write. I’m gun shy. I’m weak in the ankles. I’m on the diving board, and I can certainly dive, but the water down there — well, there might be something down there. Something I’m afraid to discover.

See, I write for a living, but it’s never really my words. It’s re-words. Every day, I try to find another way to re-work my employer’s mission statement, fine tuning the language in order to grab the person who wasn’t listening the last time. Before this, a journalist, my own words popping up just long enough to momentarily glance around at the big wide world before burrowing underneath my subject’s quote.

And in the in-between times, I write for myself. Snippets, poems, a sentence that could spark a book, if not a revolution. So I think. So I think, be a writer, really own it. I’ve come this far.

But when I received Brad Listi’s email about becoming a TNB contributor, I freaked out. I couldn’t even open the email for a day, and when I did, his instructions were in bold and everything was official and important. Like I was just drafted, or sent a visa acceptance from a foreign embassy. We ask that you post, bare minimum, once per month, he said. I gulped. Which is hard to do since I don’t have any salivary glands. Wow, that’s not even true. I’m just making stuff up because I need to write one post this month and I don’t know what to write about and I’m…

scared to write.

On the website, everyone just seems so witty and creative and more plugged into the indie literary scene than the indie literary scene itself. I can’t even remember what it was I wanted to write about when I first approached TNB with my spiffy bio. Now, faced with the opportunity to let my words run wild, I’d like another mission statement, please. I can make it look all sparkly and new and sell your story to the next person who wasn’t even planning to buy anything today. Just browsin’, thanks.

If only I hadn’t already published that piece about my colonic experience back in 2008. I could re-purpose it, but there I am, re-wording again. Re-wording my own words. But that could be seen as meta, and meta’s very “in,” I think. Potentially genius.

Maybe I need to go to a cabin faraway from home and write for 24 hours straight. Yeah, a cabin, with no running water, and I’ll sit in a wooden chair with a back so straight it’ll change the natural curvature of my spine overnight. And I’ll look at nature and “reflect back.” And the humping animals in the woods will remind me of lost love and I’ll write something forlorn and tinged with despair, but with a hopefulness at the end, like a new dawn. The dawn I’ll see every morning when I wake up with it. Oh, and I’ll have to drink something strong that makes my muscles ache, and my forhead slip from my palm to nearly hit the keyboard of my computer. Scratch that. Typewriter. Ice cubes that clink in a glass. Where will I get the ice cubes? Don’t think about that.

Also, how can I drink if I don’t have any salivary glands?

Oh, I’ve got something. I’ve got something; I’ve got something. And I didn’t write this at the fake cabin. I thought of it just now. Inappropriate Facebook statuses! Like, here’s one: “Megan Tady learned that role playing ‘getting a pap smear’ with a partner isn’t actually hot. Turns out the word ‘swab’ is a real mood killer.” But then I Googled “inappropriate Facebook statuses” and it turns out everybody’s doing them. There are even entire websites devoted to this. Probably frat brothers. So I’ll write about something else…

Like how about words that have probably never been uttered together in the same sentence? The other night while my boyfriend and I were cuddling, I said, “I see Chelsea Clinton dragging a port-a-potty into the woods.” And he said, “Oh my God, those words have probably never been said on this planet before.” We had been talking about Chelsea Clinton’s outlandish wedding and the port-a-potties that cost $15 grand. And then we do the cutest thing ever that any couple has probably ever done, oh you would love it, this little bedtime ritual, where we stare off into the distance and say that we see something random dragging something else random into the woods. Like a tumbleweed dragging a pencil. It’s sort of an inside joke and you sorta have to be there. Also, my boyfriend probably wouldn’t want me to share this because it’s sacred.

How did the Obama administration go from bravely shunning Fox News to presenting them with the front-row seat in the White House press room? Oooh, throwing in some politics.

But I’m beating around the bush. I’m turning on a dime. I’m using every cliche in the book to get me out of writing. Because, sigh, writing your own stuff really is scary. I have high expectations for myself. I want to write a post so grand that the comments in the comment section overflow and the webmaster has to call me and beg me to stop writing because the server simply can’t take the traffic. I want to write a post so heavy in analysis of modern day affairs that pundits instantly quit their jobs. I want to write a post that heaves up buried traumas so eloquently that even people who never owned dogs – in fact, hate pets in general – cry along with me. Oh, I want to write a post.

But I’ll start with this one. I’ll start by saying this is scary, yet I’m still going to try. It’s time I used my own voice, coaxed it out from hiding, let it dance a little.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m new here, so go easy.

The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.