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Reading

Book Digest: April 30, 2007

Reviewing the one short story published right now you have to read: “The House of the Two Three-Legged Dogs” by Elizabeth McCracken.

For a person who writes short stories, I have a funny way of reading them. I probably look more like a person scrutinizing a passing stranger on the street than someone settling down to read: skeptical, certainly frowning. Before the end of the first paragraph, I’ve already started flipping toward the end of the story, letting my eyes graze here and there. If something catches me, I’ll stay and read a bit, but usually not straight through to the end. I skip around, flirting with different parts, reading forward and backward. After a while, I’m either finished with the story or intrigued enough to start again in the middle. If I go back to the middle, I try hard to read straight through to the end. If I don’t succeed, I’m done.

My editor, after reading that first paragraph, asked me if I liked short stories. I really do, I insisted, because every once in a while something else happens, something wonderful. It’s as if I suddenly realize the stranger on the street is actually my beloved grandmother, back from the dead to tell me something important, and I have to sprint to catch up to her. Tired, out-of-breath, sheepish, my obnoxious little reading method in shambles, I fall into stride. She tells me to smooth my skirt, and we begin, properly, at the beginning.

The latest story to whip me into shape this way was “The House of the Two Three-Legged Dogs” by Elizabeth McCracken. Here are a few of the things that sent me back to the beginning: “Like Izzy, he was giving up hope. It was a physical process, the hope a sort of shrapnel working its way out of his skin. It hurt.”

Is there a better description of despair?

“Sid stood up and his stomach, an impressive spherical object, came into the car, crowding Tony over.”

Is there a better description of a man talking next to a car?

And my candidate for best description of a home lost to worry and disorder: “A bag of garbage sat on the sofa like a person.”

“A story is not like a road to follow…it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like…”The story is set in Bazaillac, France, a small town overrun with British expats. Tony and his wife, Izzy, have been there 11 years, long enough to have once been such a novelty they were called les Anglais. Now, however, “you couldn’t go into a market without being assaulted by the terrible voices of your countrymen. Tony had heard that Slovenia and Macedonia were the new places to go. He wished Slovenia and Macedonia luck.”

It is Christmastime and Tony is circling the town in an old Escort looking for his son, Malcolm. Instead he finds Sid (of the stomach) and eventually Sid comes to visit, bringing with him a female African gray parrot, a gift to Tony from Malcolm. Things will not end well for the bird, or the car, Tony’s gift to Malcolm, if he could find him. The house Tony shares with Izzy is a mess: overrun with animals, never fully renovated. Good intentions have either run amok or been abandoned. Add the damp of winter and the British predilection to drink while socializing, and you’ve got one dark, drunken little story.

“The House of the Two Three-Legged Dogs” is about the worst kind of family disaster, a slow disintegration ending in betrayal. But no one in the story wants to see it that way, just as they don’t want to see the overrun house and town. So here we have a situation in which two three-legged dogs, who have mated and have a litter of new pups, are the symbol of hope. How great is that? All the able-bodied animals—Tony, Izzy, Malcolm, Sid, even the two four-legged sheep dogs who herd only kittens and kitchen counters—have failed to thrive. The broken dogs are the ones beginning a new family, and, like Tony to his compatriots in Slovenia, we wish them luck.

I hate the word “heartbreaking.” I think it’s very overused. This story, however, is nothing else.

A few years ago I found this in Alice Munro’s introduction to her Selected Stories: “I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction. So it appears that I’m not reading—at least in an efficient way—to find out what happens…. A story is not like a road to follow…it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like…You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”

I was so relieved. Maybe I’m not crazy. In this spirit, I’ve been living in McCracken’s house for a few days, and I tell you, it’s getting better and better. Here, let me move that bag of garbage. Sit down. Have a glass of wine.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane

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