March 24: “Last Days of the Dog-Men” by Brad Watson

This is the second time in as many days that Brad Watson might be surprised I’m reaching out to him. He and I are FB friends, and maybe we’ve met/corresponded a bit, but we don’t run in the same circles and I wouldn’t by any means say, “I know Brad.” Yet, the other night, at around two a.m., I butt-dialed a Facetime request to him, one that lasted a few seconds, certainly long enough for it register on his phone (if that’s how all this tech stuff works, anyway). I’m not sure how that happened exactly, though sometimes, my contacts list on my iPhone expands to all my FB friends, which I have to turn off every once in a while. Maybe his name was highlighted because I’d just looked him up on FB (to confirm our friendship). Maybe, though, it was a wild coincidence that I’d grabbed his book to read for today and just so happened to but dial a face-to-face with him in the middle of the night. So, Brad, if and when you see this, sorry about that. Hope I didn’t wake you.

Reading from Watson’s Last Days of the Dog-Men allows me to continue with dog-themed posts, at least for another day, picking up where I left off with Tara Ison’s “Ball” from yesterday. I suppose I could have done a dog week—Lorrie Moore’s Bark is on my pile, too—but that would take more effort: It was easy to pick Bark and Last Days of the Dog-Men off the pile, but I didn’t know Ison’s “Ball” was about a dog until I read it. It would take a lot of planning to pull that off. I.e., I’m not going to do it.

Anyway, I read a few stories from Watson’s book, but like I tend to do, I’m writing about the title story, “Last Days of the Dog-Men.” This is the story of an unnamed narrator/protagonist who is living with his friend Harold on a farm, recovering from mistakes he’s made in his life. He, Harold, and a man named Phelan inhabit the house, sort of a halfway home for broken men. Harold screwed up his marriage with an affair, just like the narrator, and Phelan is just a big private guy, one who likes to randomly kill wild animals with his .38 that he randomly carries with him on random excursions. The men fish, drink, and regret, all the while surrounded by dogs. No, this isn’t a werewolf story or book (as “dog-men” might imply), but a story about men who lives their lives with (and without) dogs, the dogs existing around them as they plod through life.

“Last Days of the Dog-Men” is put together unlike anything I’ve come across before. It’s set up as a series of anecdotes, really, about the narrator, episodes from his life that he remembers. The story starts with him relaying his childhood, how he grew up with hunting dogs (beagles, mostly) how he and his father would go on hunts. We then jump to the next anecdote, the narrator with Harold at the farm, on leave from his job at the Journal, why we don’t know, let alone what he did there. We just know he’s alone, banished from work, and living with a friend in a dilapidated, pest-infested farmhouse on an unused plot of land. Maybe he’s not hit rock bottom, but he’s close. The next anecdote outlines Phelan and his love of isolation and shooting things (always a winning combo), the next Harold’s relationship with his two dogs, Otis and Ike, the next about the general crappiness of the house. After that, we find out about Sophia, the woman Harold had his affair with, which blends into the narrator’s affair. Watson stacks these stories, one at a time, often without much transition—the Sophia section begins: “How Harold came to be alone is this: ….” It’s a neat effect, allowing Watson to gather details, to build tension.  The voice is also relaxed, a stylized monologue, as if the narrator is just drinking a beer out on the porch, telling stories to anyone who will drink with him, sit and listen. It was a fast and easy story to read.

Watson’s patient rate of reveal allows us to ease into the narrator’s own foibles, his own tragedy. With Imelda, a fellow Journal worker, he cheated on Lois, his right-after-that ex-wife. Not that it’s any surprise for a middle-aged, hard-drinking, lonely man to have lost a wife to an affair, but Watson’s gradual structure and easy prose allow us to read about these men without wondering what’s going on, where the story is going. Eventually, the story reaches a subtle climax when we find out what Lois did as revenge for the narrator’s affair, an act that has as detrimental an affect on her as it has on him. It’s sad, but bold, and the entire story suddenly makes perfect sense. It immediately made me admire “Last Days of the Dog-Men” and Watson as a writer.

Last Days of the Dog-Men is actually Brad Watson’s first book, out in 1996 from Norton. He’s also author of The Heaven of Mecury, a novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and another story collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. I’ve been behind on my Brad Watson, it seems, but I’m glad to have found him. Doesn’t mean I can call him at two a.m., though. At least not until after I post this, right?

Brad Watson