A Dog Between Us
duncan b. barlow
Stalking Horse Press, 2019: 244 pp.
This review appeared in the 32nd edition of The Briar Cliff Review.
The world of duncan b. barlow’s most recent novel is surprising in its realism. For the author who gave us shape-shifting assassins (The City, Awake, 2017), blood-thirsty babies (Of Flesh and Fur, 2016), and mutant cat people (Super Cell Anemia, 2008), a novel about humans suffering uniquely human losses is a remarkable departure.
With stark and sometimes shocking realism, A Dog Between Us portrays a world of unsettling truths. It is a world of children and parents, of brothers and sisters, of lovers and companions, and the varied ways in which we lose them. With crisp, deft prose, A Dog Between Us tells parallel stories of loss: the loss of a father and the loss of an intimate relationship. Crag, the novel’s narrator, stitches the losses together in alternating chapters, the two threads of the narrative closing, drifting, crossing each other, but never becoming fully entangled.
The novel opens on what feels like the end: Crag travelling to his family home to attend to his father’s funeral arrangements. However, this proves to be only one of many endings. Barlow plays with time, falling into canyons of memory, climbing back to the present, only to slip back down again. In this way, the dancing timelines of the novel put the reader into the reality of grief and loss, and throughout we feel the pull of regret like a second gravity, which at times goes unnoticed and at times brings us crashing to the ground.
The elegant simplicity of barlow’s language, and the familiar settings lure the reader into a kind of comfortable acceptance of the truth of the novel, before springing sorrow on us like a claw trap. Early in the novel, while Crag is planning his father’s funeral service, we find ourselves caught in one of these traps:
We will have no visitation. There will be no viewing of our father’s hollowed out corpse. There will be a service. There will be a photo. There will only be a photo. From here until evermore, there will only be photos.
Over and over, we are pummeled with these moments. Moments that anyone who has experienced loss can feel in their guts. A Dog Between Us dives to the bottom of the reality of loss. It doesn’t stop at the hospital waiting room, or with hand holding at the bedside. It holds the truth of death up to our faces and urges us to smell it. We are with Crag when he rubs his father’s cracking feet, when he washes stale sweat from his genitals, when he wipes away feces from his back. These moments of tender disgust are so intensely personal, that reading them almost feels prurient. Yet, it is in these almost-too-personal moments that the book transcends the story it is telling, and speaks directly to the readers, telling us, “This is good. This is right. This is what we do for the ones we love.” And those who have done it will find comfort in the unflinching truth of barlow’s rendering.
Crag seeks solace in the character of Emma, a long-held crush turned lover. Seeing Emma through Crag’s eyes, we see someone who is beautiful, passionate, brilliant and kind. Yet, clouded by love and grief, Crag doesn’t see or cannot heed the signs that portend disaster. The waxing and waning of Crag and Emma’s love mirrors the recovery and relapse of the final weeks of Crag’s father’s life. We sense that there is never balance between the lovers. Emma shares her secrets, while Crag keeps his close to his heart. Emma is jealous, where
Crag is impassive. Emma vivisects words, stripping them to their essence, while Crag collects them, padding them around his pain.
The titular dogs that come between the lovers, are literal ones: Emma’s rescued pit bull, Chelsea, and Crag’s doe-eyed collie, Zelda. The dogs are ever-present in Crag and Emma’s relationship. They click around the wood floors, sneak onto their bed, comfort and distract their human companions.
Crag says, “It’s always been easy for me to love animals. People take work. They’re secrets waiting to explode. Animals just want love.”
After Crag and Emma’s secrets inevitably explode, we find Crag licking his wounds far from home, working as a cook in a Mexican hostel. “Home seems such a heavy word to me, some barb that’s only wounded me, pulled me back whenever I strayed.” Even on a paradisiac beach, Crag is haunted by home, by the ghosts of those he has lost, and by the specter of those he will inevitably lose.
In its waning chapters, A Dog Between Us has reserved one final gut punch for the reader, and in the end we are left sitting in the truth of loss, reckoning with its inevitability. Yet in the midst of grief, barlow chooses to immerse us in beauty: the ocean, the rocky forests, the flawed and precious people, the joyous and primal dogs. Still sunk deep inside his loss, Crag is reminded that there will always be more, more to love and conversely, more to lose. Rather than providing the reader with a comforting lie, barlow once again drags us to the bottom, however when we reach the bottom, we find we have no choice but to float back toward the surface.