Review by Walter Cummins
Terese Svoboda opens Dog on Fire with the narrator trapped in a blinding storm: “Out of a storm so thick with dust, a storm so charged with first-rate prelightning ions that the grit flashes and the car dials fade, a storm so dark no taillight shines through, though drivers have flicked on every emergency switch …” It made me think of the first chapter of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her …” But unlike Dorothy, who “felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle.” Svoboda’s unnamed narrator, violently shaken, spots “my brother with a shovel.”
It turns out this digging man is a vision because the brother is dead, the quest to learn the cause of his death the main question of the novel. While the cyclone in Kansas deposits Dorothy and her dog Toto in a distant reality populated with odd creatures, Svoboda’s narrator survives the flying grit to return to the home she has known all her life. Still, the place is just bizarre as Oz even though there are no witches, wizards, munchkins, or talking scarecrows. Unlike the cowardly lion, the dog with the burning tail is a real animal suffering real pain.
The novel’s dust bowl setting has been scarred with the great hole left by a meteor. Now all that’s left are “rocks that drive a compass wild.” This place lacks a direction, a clear orientation.
The narrator’s father claims the meteor brought aliens, a term the narrator applies to her brother. Alive, he was a victim of frequent seizures and a survivor of an electrical shock. Townspeople regard him as a strange being, the only person close to him the obese Aphra. She is as obsessed with him and his death as the narrator, who hardly regards his year-younger brother with Aphra’s affection: “My brother was an alien to me with his spells—he went somewhere else when his eyes rolled back. If only I weren’t so embarrassed about that. If only I were instead just a little bit compassionate, but I stepped back in shock every time, I let somebody else deal with the thrashing and talking.”
Aphra is the only named character in the novel, and she has her own occasional italicized comments on people and events that get briefer and fewer as the story progresses. The central narrator designates the others in this small town by their relationships—mother, father, son, brother. Yet, despite the connections of family and familiarity, sharing the same spaces, they interact through estrangement. Families are bound by a combination of indifference and exploitation. Aphra’s affection for the brother is the one example of genuine feeling. She and the narrator do come together to attempt to use shovels to dig out his casket and witness his remains, Aphra eager to kiss them. But they never can raise the lid.
Svoboda’s inventiveness suggests comic undertones, often the cruelty of slapstick, as in the scene where the dog whose tail has been ignited by a group of spoiled, drug dealing teen boys runs under their car with a resulting explosion and the boys’ own ignition. In a flat cat cartoon the action might be a source of laughter. In this novel, the cries of the innocent animal temper the reaction to the retribution visited on the burning boys: “Its howls are screams. The boys in the car are laughing.” When they are on fire, the narrator saves the boys by beating down their flames with a mat from her car. Yet in the aftermath they and their parents accuse her of causing their burning, until her son provides evidence of the dog by retrieving dog bones from his high school science lab. The compass spins.
The townspeople in Dog on Fire teeter on the edge of caricature, laughable in their ignorant narrowness. But Svoboda adds an emotional depth to their antics, primarily though the urgency of Aphra’s emotional need and the central narrator’s driving desire to make sense of it all by knowing what really happened to her brother. Underneath this quest she is obsessed by guilt: “What am I afraid of? That he will take his revenge for every time I turned away from him? That what he was saying is that I will get what I deserve?”
The novel began with the narrator in her car swallowed by a blackening storm. It ends with her son’s new car trapped in the meteor hole: “The pickup’s at an angle, and in the windshield all I can see is the edge of the hole and the moon behind it. On that edge, in front of that moon, I make out […] about as alien a creature as you can think up.” But when she looks away, it is gone.
Her father says this hole is the future, “all cratered and dusty. This hole is what you get into when you get all cold, then stuff buries you or tries to.” Yet the son and his friends (now he has friends) succeed in heaving his car out of the hole. The narrator’s vision that opened the novel was her dead brother digging. At the end what she finally sees is her son holding the shovel beside the rescued car. Like Dorothy back from Oz to Kansas, he may finally be home, and the narrator no longer alien in her community.