February 6: “Dog Days” by Judy Budnitz

This won’t be news to anyone, but the “hot new” genre that has popped up in the last … five? ten? twenty? … years is the post-apocalyptic genre. What happens to regular people when civilization falls apart? The answer is, in short, they try to survive, all the way up until they don’t. Usually, the end of civilization is not due to poor financial decisions, eating too much cheese, or electing the wrong president, but something more catastrophic like nuclear war, famine, or zombie infestation. The idea’s not exactly new—think of the future in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, cannibalistic Morlocks and such—but it’s certainly taken a foothold in our pop culture consciousness, literature included, as of late. I see several post-apocalyptic narratives every semester in my classes, something I never saw as an undergrad, though that has as much to do with the strict anti-genre policies imposed by that earlier generation of workshop leaders than any sudden trend. These narratives are everywhere nowadays, whether you allow them into your world or not. The Walking Dead, a zombie show that boasts the most viewers on TV, repremieres tomorrow night. Last night, I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, a post-nuclear action movie that’s up for Best Picture. And I read “Dog Days” by Judy Budnitz, a story about a war-torn society, its inhabitants regressing into survival mode.

Sure, Budnitz’s story is from Flying Leap, a collection released in 1998, meaning the story is even older than that, hardly fodder for a 2016 argument about post-apocalyptic cultural phenomenon. In fact, 1998 might have been the perfect year to predict this trend, to write seriously on the topic, to be the first to do so. Still, I read the story last night and couldn’t help but think of this theme, how much we’re obsesses with end-of-the-world stories, why they appeal to us in so many ways.

“Dog Days” is somewhat funnier take on the post-apocalyptic theme, if a narrative where a most people die and everyone else turns into savage survivalists can be considered funny. Budnitz’s story focuses on one family and their quest for survival, a quest that’s interrupted by a man showing up at their door, wearing a dog costume. The man in the dog suit isn’t just wearing a suit—I could imagine a story where a group of survivors is holed up in one of those Halloween stores and then all emerge dressed like whatever—but he embodies the persona of a dog whole-heartedly. Some of the family members want to just shoot him—they have enough problems—but the man’s commitment to his role, plus the complete lack of animals in the world (rats off a sinking ship, you know), leads to the family letting the man inside. Immediately, the man becomes part of the family, playing his role without breaking character, including his eating and sleeping habits, not to mention his acts of affection.

“Dog Days” is a little bit more absurd than most post-apocalyptic stories because of this dog character, a full-grown man in a suit assuming the role of pet. The family moves on in their own search for survival, their hope of society turning around, and before long, Budnitz is able to make the man disappear—for a page or two, I forgot the dog was really a guy in a dog suit.

Where does a story like this go from there? Anyone who knows anything about post-apocalyptic narratives knows that things don’t ever go back to the way they used to be. The zombies just keep multiplying, the nuclear fallout intensifies, and people just keep regressing into self-preservation mode. I won’t reveal the ending of “Dog Days,” but after finishing Budnitz’s story, it seems like her ending was the only ending possible for this story. This is the greatest compliment I can give an author, as that’s how it should be: The story keeps you guessing, delivers with the exact resolution, and seems to be exactly what it should be, like a story that’s always been, one that I’ve always had read. “Dog Days” feels like that.

I somehow haven’t read any Judy Budnitz before this post, even though her rise in the late nineties paralleled one of my favorite writers, Aimee Bender. I’m not sure why that is, as Budnitz was a known and widespread talent, following up Flying Leap with Nice Big American Baby in 2005. That’s over ten years ago, I guess, so I wonder what Budnitz has been up to since—a Google search revealed very little—but like with so many authors I’ve read on this blog, I’m glad I finally caught up, once again, better late than never. Certainly not the end of the world.

Judy Budnitz