Since my son was born six months ago, evenings in my house have become fairly regimented. After work, my wife and I spend a couple hours playing with him until we begin the bedtime routine—a book, a feeding, and then into the crib, after which it’s not long before we hit the bed as well. All of this, of course, leaves very little time for reading, and when I am able to, it’s usually an academic text, rarely a pleasure read.
It’s remarkable, then, that I somehow managed to plow through Brad Felver’s new collection The Dogs of Detroit in three consecutive nights. For this I owe a debt of gratitude to my wife, who was understanding of my need to finish it, as she always is on the rare occasions when I encounter a book that I just can’t put aside.
The world that Felver’s characters inhabit is cold and unforgiving, rife with poverty and violence. These are desperate, lonely characters waging their own private wars on the world: the couple in “Queen Elizabeth” wrangling with a devastating loss, the young brother and sister in “Evolution of the Mule” bilking travelling businessmen with a rigged game, the two boys in “Out of the Bronx” hunting rats and setting them ablaze. Their lives are dark and dingy, but not without hope. Indeed, there is a sort of brutal wisdom permeating these fourteen stories that speaks to the characters’ longing for change. They want very much to rise above their lowly circumstances, but they don’t know how, and it is this constant toil to be better that makes them so enthralling. “Hate something long enough,” the unnamed main character claims in “Out of the Bronx,” speaking in regard to the disadvantages of settling, “and that becomes the reason you hate it”—an apt exemplification of these characters’ moral philosophies: there’s not much you can do to stop the world from consuming you, but it’s noble to try.
Much like reading the works of Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy, from whom Felver seems to take inspiration, reading The Dogs of Detroit feels somewhat illicit, like witnessing a domestic squabble. We are given access to the characters’ most closely-guarded secrets, their private desires, and the fears that propel them. We are privy to their many mistakes and failures, and we get to observe their struggles to make sense of an uncaring world where beauty and ugliness are often conflated. As we are told by Ralph, the narrator in “The Era of Good Feelings,” who is dealing with the death of his father: “Sometimes when we aren’t paying attention, grief and desire and shame mutate and become one big dirty puddle.” This is a principle that carries throughout the book. Here, even the most kindhearted gestures are tempered by a darkness that speaks to the characters’ capacity for self-destruction.
In his author’s note for “Queen Elizabeth,” appearing in the 2018 O. Henry Prize Stories compilation, Felver mentions the birth of his son as a turning point in his writing: “I simply couldn’t, and still can’t, fathom how parents deal with losing a child. What I did know was that this trauma was the wedge I needed to separate my happy couple. . . . Examining how grief mutates over long stretches of time ended up being fascinating work.” So many of Felver’s characters are battling forces beyond their control; furious, they lash out aimlessly in ways that are both appalling and hilarious. In the opening passage of “Praemonitus, Praemunitis,” for instance, we see the terror that can overtake a parent when a child begins to act of his or her own accord:
My son wants to be a cage fighter. He’s seventeen, and so knows a lot about everything, especially this. He’s considered all the particulars, and he just knows he could be good at it. “There’s purity to it, Dad,” he says. “Fighting is the original human sport.”
I pray this will pass in a week or so, or perhaps the first time he gets punched in the nose hard enough to make his eyes spurt water and his brain swell against his skull.
The notion here that the father would rather his son face serious pain and injury if it means altering his warped perspective is in keeping with a book in which the characters are, to a large degree, victims of circumstance trawling through seedy urban slums and harsh rural terrains. Indeed, many of the characters in The Dogs of Detroit are impoverished, barely keeping their heads above water, and in doing so, often wind up making foolish decisions, like the two boys in “Throwing Leather” do while searching the Montana wild for a release of their pent-up adolescent aggressions:
We were mean kids. We knew it and we celebrated it. We salted slugs in the street and watched them melt. We caught brook trout and plucked their eyes with a corkscrew, leaving their wriggling bodies for the bears. We slathered each other’s sandwiches with gear grease when no one was looking. When we got hurt or punished, we took it as a sign that we were doing something right, that we were being mean enough. But Charley was always searching for new cruelties. Even his mother was afraid of him, which meant he mostly did as he pleased.
Throughout Dogs of Detroit, there is a sociocultural examination at work, at which Felver excels: he wants us to view his characters as human beings, not simply as one-dimensional representations of destitute deadbeats. At the same time, however, he doesn’t pander to the reader by whitewashing their despicable behaviors, as evidenced in “Out of the Bronx”:
Years later and I can still see them bolting out from that dumpster at the end of the alley, dozens of rats, squealing and scurrying. They’re on fire. Roman and I are watching from the fire escape four stories up, these burning rats darting all over the place and yelping. “Burn harder, you rat-fucks!” Roman screams. He has this deranged look in his eyes, like a boxer who just got knocked out and is coming to. It’s dark out, so it’s almost pretty, all these burning rats scampering in every direction, like a meteor shower in the alley, and I almost say so but I decide not to. Instead, just watch, open-mouthed, two young kids in awe of this cosmic power we’ve just unleashed.
That the characters are aware of their reprehensibility lends them a depth that elevates them beyond the territory of corny caricatures. It isn’t that they want to make trouble, it’s that they don’t know how not to. And in this way, the book seems strikingly accurate for an era in which honesty is maligned and cruelty is exalted as a virtue. This is a grim, unsettling read, populated with hard-edged figures who have very little left to lose. The prose is succinct yet variegated with shrewd insights—a savvy reflection of the characters’ worldviews. This is a captivating collection, one that I suspect I’ll spend another few nights flying through in the near future.
About the Reviewer
Jeremy Griffin is the author of two short fiction collections: "A Last Resort for Desperate People," from SFASU Press and "Oceanography," forthcoming from Orison Books. His work has appeared in such journals as the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Indiana Review, and Shenandoah. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University, where he serves as the faculty fiction editor of Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature. He can be reached at griffinjeremy.com.