Welcome to the 2008 version of the Important Canadian Novel. Like the 2007 version – Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero – Red Dog, Red Dog announces itself with a flurry of portentous poetic language, often dealing with the natural world. The landscape of the novel is “stone country where a bone cage could last a thousand years under the moon, its ribs a perch for Vesper sparrows, its skull a home for harvest mice,” and the earth is dotted with “little pincushion cactus like upside-down spoons, pink flowers growing among their spines.”
Largely the story of brothers Tom and Eddy Stark – notice the telling surname – the novel weaves back and forth in time (the main action takes place in the 1950s) to paint a portrait of a family whose history is tainted by suicide, murder, and drug addiction, among other ills. Death haunts the novel from its very opening, as it is narrated from the grave by six-month-old Alice, who watches her father bury her, “imprinting my body onto the skin of his hands.”
After robbing the Royal Legion bar at age 14, Eddy is sent to a Vancouver reform school, despite being a year too young. When he returns home, he’s fulfilled his father’s fear that he would “come back broken.” Eddy becomes addicted to heroin and grows increasingly unpredictable in his actions. When he kills a man in a botched robbery, his brother must pick up the pieces.
Patrick Lane is an award-winning poet, so it is perhaps unsurprising when he deploys elevated language in the midst of a tense dramatic scene, such as when a shotgun blast breaks up a fight, and the “flare of flames from the burning barrel beside the shed spilled comet tails into the sky.” We are then told that the holder of the shotgun “ululated, his voice tremolo.”
But above and beyond the affected language, what marks Red Dog, Red Dog with the imprint of the Important Canadian Novel is its overall tone, which is sombre, dour, and practically devoid of anything resembling humour. The book is a slog, but the reader persists because it gives off the impression of weight and seriousness: we read because we are convinced that, in the end, the experience must be good for us.