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Powells.com
Monday, November 12th, 2001


 

Dogwalker: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

by Arthur Bradford

A review by C. P. Farley

Each of the twelve stories in Arthur Bradford's debut collection, Dogwalker, is narrated by a twenty-something slacker, the sort of hapless-but-lovable youth who subsists on minimum wage and frozen pizza. They are generally surrounded by an assortment of charming misfits and their dogs. Lots of dogs. More than half of these stories feature at least one dog. In some, they come in half-dozen lots.

Bradford's stories, though, barely justify the term. Short and sweet, they are more anecdotes than stories. For example, in "South for the Winter," the narrator steals a car from a blind friend and heads for warmer climes. He gets caught and goes to jail, but his blind friend decides not to press charges. That's about it.

Nonetheless, these slim tales have earned Bradford the praise of such distinguished writers as David Sedaris, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, who calls him "the mutt's nuts." Bradford also received an O. Henry Award for the first story in the collection, "Catface." There is no question of his talent. Bradford has the storyteller's knack of engaging an audience; he grabs his reader right off, then keeps their attention by moving his story along at a pleasantly jaunty clip, which is more difficult than it seems. At times, his dialogue also has an idiosyncratic, Jim Jarmusch quality. Take as an example this bit from "Little Rodney," where our narrator is trying to get his neighbor's attention:

I had, on a few occasions, tried to ask Carla out dates. It would go something like this:

"Hi, Carla. That's nice work you're doing on that car."

And she would say, "Thanks a lot."

Then I'd say, "Hey, how would you like to get something to eat with me?"

"Yeah, well, see," she'd say, "I've kind of given up eating solid foods. I'm trying to get away from all that these days."

However, Bradford is most often praised for his characters, loopy oddballs that bring to mind Denis Johnson's more affable eccentrics. His fondness for mutants and misfits these stories include a roommate that looks like a cat, a boy who is both deaf and blind, a woman in an iron lung, a tiny man the size of a muskrat, and a number of three-legged dogs has even earned him comparison to Flannery O'Conner.

Yet, such comparisons are misleading. Dogwalker owes far more to the quirky anecdotes heard on NPR than to Catholic O'Connor's gothic tales of faith and alienation. And Bradford's charming drifters don't evoke the pathos of, say, the narrator of Jesus' Son. In fact, these stories are too optimistic, they resolve too neatly, to evoke much pathos at all. If Dogwalker is any indication, Arthur Bradford simply isn't that ambitious.

Bradford's obsession with dogs is fitting. Like a good mutt, his meandering narratives are good-natured, playful, and eminently likable. Like our canine friends, though, that's really all they have to offer. For those who would respond, "Isn't that enough," I can only answer, "Not for this reader." Maybe I'm just a cat person.


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