Red Dog, Red Dog was on my personal shortlist for last year’s Giller Prize — it went on to the “read again” pile but stayed there when it failed to make the official shortlist. Published this spring in the United Kingdom it is eligible for this year’s ManBooker Prize and has attracted very positive comments on the MB forum site from two readers whom I respect, Ang and bookermt. With the Canadian paperback due out in early August, I finally was motivated to make that second read. It was even better than the first one.
Patrick Lane is an award-winning Canadian poet and memoirist. Red Dog, Red Dog, published at age 69, is his first novel; he has taught creative writing at a couple of universities so his influence extends well beyond his published work.
Forewarned is forearmed: this is a very bleak novel. While the action of the book, set in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, takes place during one week of 1958, the tragedy of the Stark family is cumulative, extending back several generations into the late nineteenth century. Much of that historical story is told from the grave by Alice Stark, who died at age six months — it is a device that Lane uses very effectively.
The author takes fully half the novel to set in place the pieces of his story, almost like a chessmaster setting up a particularly challenging puzzle, taking great care to establish for the reader just how the bleak present came to be.
Eddy Stark is the oldest son and the trouble-maker who moves the plot. He got sent to reform school as a 14-year-old. Alice summarizes his story:
Sergeant Stanley arrested Eddy, Harry having slipped away into the crowd. Richard Smythe, the town’s judge, sent him down to Boyco, the boy’s correctional school in Vancouver, despite Eddy being a year too young. Stanley wanted to teach Eddy a lesson. So did Father. Eddy never forgot Sergeant Stanley arresting him or the year that followed in that prison. There was something dead in Eddy’s head when he came back from the coast. The boy he’d been was no longer there, and in his place was someone gone past feeling, who thought nothing of pain, his own or anyone else’s. Even Father stepped sideways when Eddy walked behind him.
Heroin and violence are Eddy’s response. Despite this, his younger brother, Tom — the closest thing to a normal character in the book — feels a bond that cannot be broken. Tom himself is a damaged creature. Alice again tells the back story, this time referencing Rose, another sister who died even younger:
It was Tom’s name Little Rose called out to me when I lay in my last breathing. Tom, she said, Tom. He was the brother she turned me to, the hands I knew alive when he fed me stolen milk, a boy I watch over dead. I saw him then for what he was, his solemn face beyond the bars of my crib. He was a boy gone early to old. He was born in the wrong season, wind in a rocky country, desert snow. He carried a sack of grief in his heart, in his eyes the story of us all.
Lane is every bit as meticulous in developing the minor characters in the book. Here is his description of Crystal:
Crystal had the calculating half-dreams of the poor. She’d grown up in a shotgun trailer with old towels for curtains. If anyone looked close at her they’d find a hole in a stocking, a seam stitched by a bad needle, a hem come down, or a twist in a sweater woven wrong. She had the curse of coming from nothing, all her plans a map leading her someday into a beat-up trailer worse than the one she came from, pregnant with two bawling kids and bruises on her cheeks. To her a skirt and sweater in the end were just things a boy took off, blonde hair something they could grab. Tom figured the day Crystal was born she’d opened her eyes to a wrong world. Eddy said Crystal Wright was the kind of girl men fed upon, Billy, Joe, Harry, and the rest. Both brothers were right.
Those are longer quotes than I normally cite — I think they are important to establish both how Lane frames his story and how he eventually brings it to fruition. And I admit that Lane is one of those authors who demand that you use his own words. It is no spoiler to say that Eddy commits an act which is beyond the pale, even for him. The back story well-established, Lane then steps up the pace. The bleakness of the past is repeated in the present.
Red Dog, Red Dog is a novel for serious readers. While I do think it is an outstanding achievement from a very talented writer, you will get no complaint from me if you say “this is just too much grief for me”. Having said that, I think it is well worth the effort.