On Ghosts and Absence: A Review of Terese Svoboda’s “Dog on Fire”

"Dog on Fire" cover

“My brother was dead was what I remembered then,” reflects our unnamed narrator, “and I cried a little the way a car does when the ignition’s gone, a click and a grind, something that needs something, that could be stopped only by stopping.” That balky engine seems a defining image for Terese Svoboda’s new novel. Dog on Fire isn’t itself aflame, but rather smoldering: something that needs something. That’s not a criticism the text delivers an arresting portrait of both melancholy and a way out but rather a description of what’s lacking for the principal players. Both the grieving sister and her fellow-narrator Aphra, the brother’s lover and one of the only characters with a name, fumble after what psychologists call “closure.” 

The brother has been gone only a month, at the time of the sister’s crying spell. Then too, while he was subject to seizures, a kind of epilepsy, he wasn’t much at risk, with a job and a place of his own, a woman who loved him and parents nearby. Granted, those comforts were tenuous. The family fabric shows its fraying before the son’s in the ground, and the few months that follow, the novel’s timeline, entail not one, but two trips to alcoholic rehab for the mother. The rocky homelife emerges as neglectful, rather than abusive, but it’s left scars across sister as well as brother. The primary narrator slinks home smarting from a dead marriage her divorce only just preceded the brother’s demise and she’s dragged along her skittish teenage son. Her challenges loom like a couple more monsters in the blurry smolder of Dog on Fire

The present action, however, concerns the brother; his ghost turns up on the opening page and the circumstances of his demise provide much of the suspense. Aphra unveils most of the mystery, while also letting us in an upbringing considerably more destructive than her boyfriend’s or his sister’s. Something like a fat Fellini whore, her tatters flapping in the dusty smalltown winds, she’s a humdinger of a character. Indeed, the setting too deserves some sort supporting-player award. Vaguely Western, the burg is small enough for high-school grudges to fester, for everyone’s secrets roll around like so many tumbleweeds, and it’s depressed not just figuratively, but also literally: there’s a meteorite crater. 

That crater features in the eruptive central scene, the one that gives us the wounded title animal, and the incident combines terror and laughs with the freakish brilliance seen in Svoboda’s 2010 travesty of seafaring, Pirate Talk or Marmalade. This latest text is quieter, more down to earth, though the carrying on around the crater is almost matched when a later party goes swiftly to hell. Still, the revelations about the brother and his family’s approach to acceptance make their way via hesitations, in stabs at insight swiftly withdrawn rather like the rhetoric I cited above, which piles up repetitions and simple verbs like “was.” This pervading diffidence, halting and resigned, bothered me a bit. I could’ve used more gumption from the sister, especially, some sign of what got her out of town and into a new family. Still, by the end she’s set up yet another new configuration of a home, as has Aphra. The way Svoboda’s two women weave their rags and shreds together, they could decorate a carnival.   


Dog on Fire
by Terese Svoboda
U Nebraska Press, 191 p.


John Domini’s latest book is the memoir The Archeology of a Good Ragù. 

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