Thursday, April 12, 2018

"Dog Heaven" (1989)

Read story by Stephanie Vaughn online.

Stephanie Vaughn's story is more along the lines of a reminiscence, but she makes it work by paradoxical yet resonant language and a fearless use of baldly sentimental figures. It's called "Dog Heaven" because a dog who is dead at the time of writing figures prominently. It's a childhood memory so obviously there are children too. The unnamed first-person narrator remembers 25 years earlier when she was in 7th grade. Her best friend is a boy named Sparky. They learn how to induce fainting as a game. They run for student government positions. It takes place on a military base in the '60s, when nuclear war was a fevered worry. The dog is named Duke and he's a big friendly guy, and smart too. I like the way Vaughn describes his barking, as during one of their fainting games: "Whenever I knocked out, I came to on the grass with the dog barking, yelping, crouching, crying for help. 'Wake up! Wake up!' he seemed to say. 'Do you know your name? Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!'" Vaughn somehow establishes an ironic distance yet indulges things like putting words in the mouths of animals. And somehow it works. My first time reading it I was mostly interested in the dog story, and found the strange locutions more something to push through. "Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again," the story starts. Going back through it again, they became more the points to linger on. We saw in Tess Gallagher's "The Lover of Horses" the idea that destiny chooses us, not the other way round, and there's a similar inside-out take going on here. The narrator is like a dream that her memories have. The memories are real. She is ethereal. Something like that. This works most for me with the dog, where the emotional pull is hardest. But I played a fainting game like she describes when I was in 7th grade too. And I know the sense of chapters in life now disappeared, but whose memories still haunt. I think that's something like what she is getting at here. It's remarkable for me how the story seems to unfold and deepen further every time I go through it.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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