March 1, 2017: “Dead Dogs” by Joseph Scapellato

Hello, Story366! It’s rare that I’m organized enough to write a post about a book on the day it’s released, yet here we are, the day Joseph Scapellato‘s book, Big Lonesome, hit the stores, and here I am, at Story366, posting my thang. I must be getting better at this, an epiphany of competence and organizational skills as I move forward with this project. (Ignore that fact that most reviews of a book appear before the book’s release—I’m not that organized.)

Or maybe I’m firing today it’s because it’s Pączki Day and I’m full of pączki?! I think that’s probably it. If you don’t know what Pączki Day is, I think I covered it a year ago … and yep, checking the Archives, last February 9, I not only discussed Pączki Day in my post, but selected a story by a great Pole, the greatest Pole writer, maybe, Stuart Dybek, to boot. “Scapellato” doesn’t sound very Polish to me—though I’ve been wrong about that before—but Joe is a Cub fan, has lived in Chicago, so I’m sure he at least knows what the fuck a pączki is.

And here I am, in the second go-around of Story366, already reacting to myself, adjusting. How Poststory366ist of me.

Anyway, for today, I read several stories out of Big Lonesome, out from Mariner Books, and really enjoyed them all. The book is cut into three sections, “Old West,” “New West,” and “Post-West,” and chronicles different stages of cowboyness, more or less. Those stories in “Old West” seem like traditional old cowboy tales, straight from the range, though with a more contemporary feel. “New West” moves things more toward present-day, while “Post-West” tells cowboy stories, of sorts, only they take place in Chicago, where Scapellato spent a good deal of time (in fact, Joe is the first person from the writer world to ever recognize me at Wrigley Field while I was vending beer, to stop me mid-aisle and talk about my book—we’ve been friends ever since). Most of the stories are shorts, two-four pages long, though I found a couple of longer stories in the mix, too, including “Cowgirl” in the first section, about a girl who is actually born from a cow, and today’s focus, “Dead Dogs,” found in the last section (yeah, pretty inevitable I was going to write about the Chicago stories, wasn’t it?).

“Dead Dogs” is about this unnamed guy who lives in Chicago, up in East Rogers Park, and is looking after his ex-fiancée’s dog, Burnham. The ex is in Europe, spending time, “as friends,” with a further-removed ex-boyfriend, and here’s our protagonist, the biggest sap in the world, doing her this big favor. Does our guy, our narrator, like Burnham? Sure. But he’s more than aware of the situation, how pathetic he is, how pathetic all this must look. That’s the premise for this story and it’s a dandy.

Most of the story, and the inspiration for the title, comes from where our hero and Burnham spend their nights, which is in this local dog-friend comedy club (first story I’ve ever read set in one of those, I have to admit). Our guy takes Burnham there, sits at the bar, and inevitably has a ton of dogless patrons come up to him, pet Burnham, then sit and explain why they don’t have a dog with them: Their dogs are dead. Our guy buys them a drink and they tell them their tragic tales of how they lost their beloved friends. Scallepato’s protagonist, in turn, gets to tell his story, about this ex he’s not remotely over yet, plus how he’s stuck watching her dog while she’s schtooping some guy in the Alps.

Have I gone into the sad stand-up comedy that goes on at this comedy club? No, but there’s, at one point, a guy named Mr. Rape Joke Man who takes the stage. That’s the kind of place this is, not exactly Second City.

Oh, I also should mention the fact that Burnham won’t eat, and while our guy tries to wrestle food into his mouth, he (our narrator, not Burnham) gets shockingly throbby hard-ons. That seems important to your understanding of this guy, too.

Still, this story isn’t about bad comedy or whatever that thing in the last paragraph is (though it’s easy to make some logical guesses …), it’s about this break-up. And what, in every break-up story, finally leads the sad bastard away from doom and gloom? Another woman, of course, and in the last third of the story, that’s what Scallepato offers us. A cute and wayward stand-up thinks Burnham is the bee’s knees and our narrator isn’t so bad, either. They leave the bar, head back to her place, and, well, stuff happens, stuff I won’t reveal here.

Other than the title, and that horse head on the cover, I had no indication that Big Lonesome would be a collection of cowboy stories until I started to read the blurbs on the back cover, examined the table of contents. I’ve read Joseph Scallepato’s work before, but perhaps only those late-book Chicago pieces, or just not enough to know this is what his first full-length offering to the would be. It matters not, as I thoroughly enjoyed the stories set in the Old West, in the New West, and in my old stomping grounds—I also especially admire “Western Avenue,” about a displaced westerner who can’t get over how there’s a street in Chitown called “Western Avenue.” All in all, this debut is a cohesive, daring, and always-surprising collection, one that depicts a lot of Little Dogies, on the range or off, most of them loners, trying to hide some kind of paint behind an air of solemn cool. It’s out today and an early bid for one of my favs of 2017.