canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke

by Leon Rooke
Thomas Allen, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

From Leon Rooke's story "The Heart Must From Its Breaking":

Mary, the Farmer

See that horse? He told me. And pointed off. I went on shelling my peas. 

Don't you have one iota of sense, I told him. That there is the supernatural.

The supernatural appears frequently in the stories selected for Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke. It's not always as blatantly presented as in the above example, but it's never far from the surface. Rooke's narrators report on a world full of mystery. Rooke fuses ordinary events with strangeness, and gives strangeness the solidity of the ordinary. "That there is the supernatural," says Mary, the Farmer. Don't make a big deal out of it. Don't be so surprised.

In a recent interview in The Danforth Review, Rooke said he had published 300 stories so far in his well trod career with "another fifty or so piling up from the desk and floor." Painting the Dog contains 17 of them. Are they really Rooke's best? I'm not sure. What I can report, is that I liked some of them more than others. And some of them were very good indeed.

Which ones did I like best? and why? Early Obscenities in the Life of the World's Foremost Authority on Heidegger (1995) and The Only Daughter (1985). Placed side-by-side these two stories show both the range of Rooke's talent and the recurrence of his dominant themes. Both focus on domenstic relationships. Both revolve around a lone girl child. Both girls are testaments of sanity and intelligence in a world sliding off the rails (betrayed by adults?). Both stories offer the hope of resolution. However, the former (as its title suggests) pushes post-modern boundaries, involves intellectual discourse, and is self-conscious about its own telling. The latter, meanwhile, set in the rural southern USA earlier in the 20th century, is probably the best William Faulkner imitation I've ever read. 

Leon Rooke is what Kurt Vonnegut would have turned out like if he had never gone to war. Both writers are concerned with big themes, but where Vonnegut obsesses on the arbitrary, Rooke obsesses on the mystery.

TDR asked Rooke why he writes so many short stories. Here was his answer:

Why? Other than it is a beautiful form? Other than the enticement to enter a flood of hugely diverse human lives? Other than a desire to explore a form the full properties of which have yet to be realized? Other than a writer's submission to the sheer, witless power of language, the invitation given to the writer, say, in a simple declarative sentence such as "A white dog was walking the beach"? Whose white dog? Why? What does the dog do next? Would not any sensible person who is a writer rather be tracking that dog than remain where one was before language had that dog put in an appearance?

Rooke's stories overflow with curiosity for unexplained situations. Sometimes this results in sharp, sustained insight; sometimes it results in peculiar speculation about the marginal and the odd.

Take the story Saks Fifth Avenue, for example. That story begins:

A woman called me up on the telephone. She was going to give me twenty thousand dollars, she said. I said come right over, I'm not doing anything this evening. Then I went back into the living room where my wife was, seated on the sofa with her nail files and paint, painting her nails. I wanted to keep it to myself for a bit.

Right there Rooke lays out the whole story. The narrator has been offered $20,000. He confronts his wife with his silence while waiting for his money to arrive. The story is framed by the offer and the arrival of the money. In between Rooke explores the dynamics of a marriage in tension. Is this interesting? To me, it seemed a little like shooting fish in a barrel. A little too easy, is what I'm saying. On the other hand, the story has one of Rooke's trademark narrators, who looks at the world with big-hearted bemusement. And I like Rooke's narrators. But sometimes I want them to be more, well, like David Foster Wallace's narrators. 

Sometimes it seems like Rooke's narrators are playing with their uncertainty just a bit too much, like they want to keep "it" to themselves "for a bit." Like the mystery isn't really a mystery, but they need to pretend that it is, just to get by, or just so they can make it to the end of their story. Shakespeare said, "The world is but a stage." Rooke might say life is just a story, held together by the mystery behind all things. The story is held together by the mystery. Without the mystery, why bother?

Rooke has already earned his spot in the Canlit canon as one of the nation's literary innovators. In his review of Painting the Dog in Quill & Quire earlier this year, Nathan Whitlock questioned how innovative Rooke actually was. The short answer might be more than most, less than some. Every reader can make his or her own decision about that question. For certain, Rooke has made a mark worth noting. He has written more than few stories worth reading. He has staked out a literary universe that is uniquely his - and worth the visit.

Michael Bryson is the editor/publisher of The Danforth Review.







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