Review of Terese Svoboda’s Dog On Fire by David John Baer McNicholas

by | Feb 27, 2024 | Bending Genres, Microviews, Reviews

The dead do not simply disappear underground. This is something every murderer learns; you keep what you kill. It’s true in more subtle ways when death is inflicted more slowly through family dynamics. Svoboda’s narrator lives in a town where she can’t escape her dead brother. She is followed around by his shovel, an animate piece of material culture within the story. The shovel is never shown moving, except in her hands, but it knows things; it shows her things. In this world, being angry at the dead and suspicious of the living just makes sense.

This is a story where every grain of dust and dirt is connected to meaning, where every being feels a heavy connection to history. The land is alive, it swallows people and amplifies their emotions. A shovel takes on agency as a sacred being in the life of a sister whose dead brother left it behind as an obtuse clue to his identity, not a piece to a puzzle, but a tool to dig with. The people who are hurt are taught by example not to show it, it creates a familiar tension shown in an unfamiliar relief of dust. This dark book has facets and flecks of hay-golden light, ghosting across its dusty fields, a town being swallowed in the grief of the American dream. The moments where characters charm each other, treat each other with kindness, or have repartee create authentic relief and balance the story, bringing it to life.

Dog on Fire is faceted like the wrinkles in a flaming bag of dogshit on a doorstep. It’s that American. You could be the one laughing, crying, or cursing. Parts of it read like a prank gone fatally wrong.  It is a work haunted by the spirit of a normal family, surrounded by normal families, normal people becoming unreal under scrutiny. They make up their logic as they go along, and sometimes generations flash by before anyone questions, should we? By then, it’s far too late for some. The rest get to live with the consequences, which are never one-sided, often hilarious and warm, and a hot knife in the gut.

The focal point of Dog on Fire is a relationship between two narrators. A sister who predominates in pages, and a dead brother’s lover who begins as a shadowy caricature. But this isn’t an exaggerated tale. The reality of this story is in its supernatural details. Frenemies locked together in a mystery, bonded by grief and unwilling to accept the mirror of the other. 

 Svoboda’s prose articulates between chockablock constructions of internal dialogue and word choices that blow the ends off concision, opening reverberations that shatter the illusion of the period. Of the titular animal she writes, “The dog is gone so fast he’s brilliant against the mindless prick of what-could-happen.” So many of her sentences thoroughly transition between scenes or feelings while harboring this sensual echolalia in the reader’s mind. 

A verbose narrator is an artful contradiction of the silence foregrounded in the story. Svoboda writes, “My father’s lonely, driving around all day looking at fields by himself without his son, is what he could answer, but that would turn the grief he’s accusing me of into his own. A parent must be strong, stronger than his children. He doesn’t have grief or regret–you can see that from the way he changes the subject.” Strength defined by silence is just a hurt person trying to look tough, the American father lost in the complexity of an experience he cannot utter. The song of a person who refuses to be sad or angry when they are sad or angry, who has painted themselves in a corner in a house on fire and is still whistling while they work.

They all live in a town with a skin made of earth. One man spends his life digging at it. His unexpected death creates ripples in family silence. These ripples radiate out into the surrounding plains, disrupting generations of people who refuse to talk about their pain, which is now visible and sensible in the skin of the town, visualized in the burn scars of phantom hoodlums, audible in the crying of dogs, felt in the weight of obsession, heard in the manic plans of people trying with desperation to make things right without naming a wrong.

Something invisible has been living a life alongside the narrator in the nothing-space of her family, in her twinning with the town’s punching bag, in the bizarro mirrored universes they each share with the deceased. There is the sense that they cannot exist in the same room together, yet they do. And there is often a thick-skinned bowl of Jell-O in the room with them.


Order from University of Nebraska Press

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