(Denver, CO: Elixir Press, 2017)
When bad things happen, there are certain words that inevitably pop up time and time again, like recurring by-products of tragedy. Everything’s going to be okay. This will pass. All things happen for a reason. We say these things even though we have no way of knowing whether they’re true – knowing that things are not okay, that trauma cannot be passed by like a carcass on the roadside, that sometimes senseless things happen for no reason at all. But those words will always belong to the bad parts of life, the fear and death and misfortune that we navigate every day. They help dull the pain so we can limp toward getting better.
The Killer’s Dog by Gary Fincke is not interested in metaphorical analgesics. It is not a collection about moving on or healing. Its stories focus on death, violence, fear – the catastrophes that define the shape of our lives by carving pieces out of them. These are not happy tales, populated as they are by characters who often do not understand their circumstances, or, if they do, cannot change them. Characters who look at the world around them and see its broken pieces without the disguise of comfortable half-truths.
Though that all sounds very bleak, what I loved so much about The Killer’s Dog is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Rather than wallowing in the misfortune it presents, it examines it with a sharp, discerning perspective that kept me turning page after page. Moments of black humor made me laugh out loud at times: “It’s like in those nature films where the lion pulls down the weakest while the rest of the herd thunders away, safe for another day,” one character observes outside the scene of a murder. Even such grimly hilarious lines provide insight into how the characters process violence. They often remain detached, both from the pain they see around them and the pain they might experience themselves. The focus is not on tragedy but rather on the people who navigate it. It reads as clear, fascinating, and above all, honest.
It’s no easy thing to render the full color and depth of ordinary existence, but Fincke’s characters are so vividly normal that they feel like people who might just live a few blocks down in the neighborhood; when it comes to their pettiness, their vices, and their cruelty, they feel like reflections of our own selves. I rarely felt moved to either pity or disgust with any of the characters because this collection is not about tugging on emotional puppet-strings. The characters simply exist, springing fully-formed off the page for the span of a single story and then veering around the corner of the next chapter header, out of sight.
Acts of violence form the thematic backbone of this collection. It explores violence as a metaphorical act as well as a literal one, from murder to the pain inflicted when characters try to twist one another into the shapes that they want to see. In “Freaks,” the narrator’s sister runs away with her sleazy boyfriend to join a circus act as “Justina”, the headless girl. At the end of the story she quits the circus and returns home. “Ronnie wanted Justina, but my face was always there,” she tells her brother. Though her boyfriend does not physically cut off her head in order to turn her into a senseless sexual object, the harm in his attempts to strip of her of humanity is real.
Such cases of misogyny make multiple appearances. Each story is told in first person, and all but one of the narrators is male. As such, the themes of violence take on new weight. The characters are of all ages, a spectrum of experience. Many of the characters are surrounded by social pressures from friends or spouses, expected to be aggressive, sexual, and unafraid. And yet all of the characters exist in a world where they are surrounded by things it is quite rational to fear: death, disease, shame. In many ways, I read this collection as an examination of the ways in which violence is upheld as a masculine ideal, and fear treated as its cowardly opposite, rather than a natural and necessary result.
Even though only one of the stories explores the female perspective directly, it provides the perfect counterweight. In “Where We Live Now”, a schoolteacher shoots his wife dead in the middle of a church service. At the memorial service the narrator finds herself looking for hints that uxoricide might become an epidemic: “I examine the men for copycats. I examine the women for helplessness. As if Denise Erhard was patient zero.” The narrator is defined not by fear or paranoia but rather the constant underlying sense of danger, so ever-present it is hardly even frightening anymore, but simply another fact of life to deal with – something many women live with every day.
Against this backdrop, fatherhood naturally emerges as a persistent theme, as many of the men struggle to help their children with their problems while scarcely able to navigate their own. Perception and expectation once again play an important role. In “Smart Boy” the narrator struggles to love and understand a son who is much more intelligent than he is. In “Are You Still There” the narrator’s son is accused of making obscene phone calls, and then ends up finding out about his father’s porn-line habits as a result. In these stories, fatherhood is a complicated, uncomfortable, often humiliating thing, a sense of diminishment rather than gain. That in itself is an act of metaphorical violence, one which they commit against themselves and their children. The traditionally masculine role is almost incompatible with the caring and understanding expected in fatherhood.
Ultimately, Fincke’s stories do not attempt to make sense of the painful world the characters inhabit. They simply show how people respond rather than how they overcome. They reach for no comfortable platitudes or familiar lies. It is a wholly fascinating collection, emotionally powerful and beautifully written. “I wish you were a storyteller,” one of the characters in “Somewhere in There, the Truth” says to her husband. “Then you could start the story that I want to hear straight out to the end, like one of those Jesus stories where everything bad means something good.”
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, currently living in Washington D.C.