If ever there was a more convincing short story collection of America’s disheartening penchant for anger, violence, and grief, especially among these desperate modern times, I haven’t come across it. With The Dogs of Detroit, Brad Felver announces himself as the twenty-first century Midwestern heir apparent of Cormac McCarthy—a writer unafraid to expose the flawed, elegiac themes that haunt the flyover states like some Flannery O’Connor of the heartland. The winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, this brutal collection of intense, sorrow-laden tales is a testament to the darker and more complicated nature within us all and exposes elements of our society that some might well wish remain hidden.
Felver is a stickler for detail, and the reader benefits thoroughly. Each of his characters, many of them broken-down working-class males trudging through Middle America, are captured with such vivacious description. The reader enters these lives and finds themselves wholly immersed within their worlds of woe. From the nuanced landscapes that scatter across the horizon, down to the age-worn tools these individuals use to make their way, Felver has presented us with a veritable case study in “the forgotten man.” Most importantly, the author does not present this as a swan song for a way of life, but more so as an unflinching and unbiased exposé—a gritty and painfully realistic examination of Americans struggling not just with the changing world at large, but with themselves.
Most of these fourteen stories present the reader with a similar situation, but what is truly remarkable is how unique each set of circumstances is underneath the surface. There is genuine brutal violence in these pieces—many broken bones, hard punches, and bloody deaths in true McCarthy fashion—and yet, with each gnarly fight comes plenty of unexpected revelation. At their core, these are stories of humanity fighting desperately against things they don’t often understand: lost love, uncompromising grief, and desolate isolation—bodies left behind in a landscape their mind must wander. Humans are incredibly emotional creatures, and even those stoic men of the Middle West cannot ignore what is most basic within us: the need to understand. Catharsis is one of the most powerful concepts in the human world and Felver has centered his brilliant collection on that commanding force.
In the opening story, “Queen Elizabeth,” Felver offers the reader perhaps his most warm tale of love lost. Centering upon two mismatched individuals who fall in love despite their incredibly different backgrounds and interests, the story is both heartwarming and melancholic in its reflection not only on how lives change, but the evolution of love itself. In the beginning, the well-educated Ruth is smitten with blue-collar Gus and taken by his most unassuming and endearing qualities:
When the bartender did finally bring the check, Gus reached for his wallet and realized he didn’t have nearly enough money. Who had ever heard of $6 bottles of beer? Cold shame spread over him, and he knew immediately that such a gaff would quash the small, snug world they had built during their evening together. But Ruth thought little of it, pulling out a wad of cash while Gus went quiet like a penitent little Catholic boy, which of course he was. What Ruth never told him—never told anyone—was that it was his mortification over such a trifle, so utterly sincere, that made her love him immediately.
Such scenes of detailed intimacy are prevalent throughout the story, even after Gus and Ruth separate following a tragedy involving their four-year-old daughter. Gus may remain a mostly quiet presence, unwilling to crash the levee of his emotions, but his inner world is intricate and complicated, as is that of Ruth’s. But Ruth has a practical mind, grounded in science and reason, which she deploys to make sense of the world. Gus’s understanding of things is much more rudimentary, steeped in woodworking and labor, but nonetheless nuanced.
The titular Queen Elizabeth is what they name a massive bur oak on their property that has been alive for hundreds of years. They are reminded that trees, along with everything else on Earth, are made up of the tiny particles that comprise the remnants of our past: people, places, and things; when one thing dies or fades away, it becomes part of something knew. Long after they part ways, Gus and Ruth encounter one another once again and Gus informs Ruth that Queen Elizabeth was blown down in a storm. They ponder whether the tree has since become part of their beings, assimilated into their chemical composition, but Ruth realizes this isn’t possible—the process takes centuries. Gus remarks that he used the wood from Queen Elizabeth to create new furniture which has become quite popular in markets and, surprisingly, was a key element in their reunion. “Queen Elizabeth” is a wonderful demonstration of Felver’s deep understanding of loss and love and the power of human frailty.
On the other end of the spectrum is the book’s titular story, “The Dogs of Detroit.” This formidable story of violence and anger stemming from grief is set in the heart of Detroit’s urban decay, which reflects the mindset of the protagonist, Polk, quite well. Polk is a bruiser, getting into vicious fights with his father when his rage has no other outlet. After the willful drug-induced disappearance of his mother onto the rough streets of Detroit, Polk becomes obsessed with finding her. As his obsession grows, so does his nihilistic rage at the hands of everyone and everything around him. His battles with his exhausted father rise in ferocity while he spends his nights creating a map of the city and his mother’s whereabouts by following her footprints in the dirty snow. After one brutal beating, he vents his rage and grief by spouting nonsensical horrors to his father’s dismay, including syringing Ebola into baby formula, dynamiting the Statue of Liberty, and “grocery bags full of puppy ears.” Despite being so young, Polk has lived a life of sadness and brutality, and the reader cannot help but wonder if he has any basic shape of humanity left within him, but there remains a glimmer of something unmistakable:
After their fights they lay there, panting, blinking back tears, and only then does Polk confide in his father. His lists off the revenges he wants to take on the universe. He imagines the worst things possible: toddler coffins, flayed penguins, pipe bombs in covenants, napalm in orphanages. He hates himself for it, his selfishness, his appetite for sloppy justice. Always he ends up wondering the same thing: Does God hate me more than I hate God? His father reaches for Polk’s hand, but Polk pulls away. No touching unless it is to create violence. “Patience,” his father says. “We must learn grief.”
The result of all these stories is a plethora of complexity—a litany of characters who appear as one thing and evolve into something else. Some of these transformations are much more dramatic than others, but always there is a sense of change—from the difference between life and death or a mere amendment of personality. As is true in life, nothing is set in stone; we are fallible creatures and we either adapt or become irrelevant and perish; The Dogs of Detroit is a case study of this very phenomenon. Felver’s collection is one that will keep readers up at night, not just because they are unable to stop reading thanks to the author’s masterful, clean prose, but also because the questions that the book raise are more important than ever. At the heart of this book are the most critical queries of our times and Felver is a commanding new voice destined to pose them for years to come.
The Dogs of Detroit, by Brad Felver. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2018. 200 pages. $21.95, hardcover.
Michael A. Ferro’s debut novel, TITLE 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions in February 2018. He was named as a finalist by Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals and print anthologies, including Juked, Monkeybicycle, Crack the Spine, Entropy, Duende, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Vulture, Splitsider, and elsewhere. Additional information can be found at: michaelaferro.com.