The Top 5 Dogs of Callan Wink’s Stories
by Jacqueline Brennan
“I’ve always liked dogs. That’s why I asked. I remember watching that one walk across the field in the snow. A beautiful animal.”
“The day you get a dog is the day you sign up to bury it. It’s a package deal. No sense in getting too attached.”
“You could say that about anything. Everything in your life—either you bury it or it buries you. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get attached.”
Poet Chris Dombrowski described Callan Wink’s debut short story collection as “mongrel stories of the new West.” Asked to react to the description in a late 2017 interview, Wink said, “I think the stories are, you know, set in the new West, as it is. And I’m not sure I know what it is to be a mongrel as it applies to a fiction piece…but I like it.”
That’s the most that has been made of Dombrowski’s use of mongrel in reviewing Wink’s work. And I find that weird. Poets are notoriously choosy with their words, so when Dombrowski says mongrel, he means mongrel, dammit. Denotatively, a mongrel is “a dog of no definable type or breed.” Dombrowski uses the tag as a nod to Wink’s versatility, and as an implicit appeal to prospective readers to resist the urge to shelve his prose reductively. That is, it’s tempting to cast Wink as the newest white male writer of stories about other white males, set predominantly in the West. But, in addition to Dombrowski’s nod, he’s throwing us a wink—and it’s specifically directed at the many memorable dogs of the Michigander-gone-Montanan’s imagination.
I remember dogs in stories—much as I do in life—with inordinate clarity, and a lot of fine dogs have graced stories set in my home state of Montana. Two come to mind immediately. First, Bill Bell’s dog from Maclean’s USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, and Steinbeck’s tall poodle, whose manners and quirks figure prominently into the texture of Travels With Charly. Though Steinbeck’s travelogue is not about Montana specifically, he devotes an entire chapter to describing his passage through the state in elevated, affectionate terms.
Wink’s collection takes its name from the first story, “Dog Run Moon.” By virtue of the title alone, I came in banking on some strong dog performances, and wasn’t disappointed. I am surprised, however, that no previous concerted discussion of Wink’s fiction has explicitly remarked on the dogs. That changes now, with this list of the five most memorable canines from Callan Wink’s fiction, ranked primarily on the basis of memorability, but also employing some personal taste and references for those that were too close to call without a second criterion. I’ll also emphasize that Callan Wink’s fictional animal kingdom is vast, and well worth a discerning reader’s independent exploration. But I’m just appraising the dogs. So here they are.
He didn’t think his life lacked for much of anything, At least there were no holes that couldn’t be filled by getting a dog. Last spring, his old lab Charlie had gone to chase the big tennis ball in the sky. He thought enough time had passed now and maybe he’d go look at the shelter sometime soon.
I admire few things more from a craft standpoint than when a writer incites emotion with something that’s absent from the space and time of a story. For dog people, the notion of an old lab going on to chase the big tennis ball in the sky rings true. It’s a small, sympathetic detail that readers can transpose onto their own experience as dog owners. The move is emotionally load-bearing. As evidence, although this dog only gets a passing mention, he stayed with me well past finishing Wink’s book.
4. Elton John
Her dogs sat and watched her work, two small brown mutts of indeterminate breed. They’d shown up together a few years back and decided they would stay. They were two neutered males and they seemed to be good friends, old traveling companions. She’d named them as a unit, not separately, because they were never apart. Elton John. That was their name.
If Wink’s readers were asked to make their own version of this list, I’d bet most would give Elton John top honors. They were in contention for mine. Yes, they. Because Elton John are two dogs, indivisible, named in aggregate by Lauren, the main character of “In Hindsight.” To their credit, the unassuming Elton John do a lot. And by “a lot,” I mean that they make us laugh, as many of Wink’s animals do. To boot, shortly after finishing Wink’s book, part of the reason I couldn’t shut up about it is because I spent a few days with a real-life Elton John—two German Shorthaired Pointers who also move through the world as a unit. Only difference is that they in fact have unique names, Odin and Freya—which I assume are taken from Norse deities. As of Memorial Day weekend 2018, I’m technically extended kin to those dogs owing to my cousin’s marriage to their owner, a well-tattooed Bay Area construction worker originally from Southern Utah.
Part of the joy of reading about Elton John was that they immediately reminded me of the dogs David Foster Wallace had in real life, Jeeves and Drone. The ease with which Elton John enter Lauren’s life recalled the way Wallace described Drone entering his: “He just showed up once while [Jeeves and I] were jogging.”
That I don’t give Elton John the top spot can be chalked up to taste and timing, but it’s also worth mentioning that “In Hindsight” was many readers’ intro to Wink’s work. A few years before Wink’s debut book was published, The New Yorker launched their online novella series with the long story. My first exposure to Wink was actually not the novella, and that’s why I’m going to break form for the third slot.
3. Brothel ghost cats
“There was a cat,” she said. “Right in the living room. It jumped up on the couch. It looked at me and I went to go pet it but it jumped down and ran into the kitchen. I thought the front door must have blown open so I went to go close it but it wasn’t open at all. Then I went back into the kitchen to find the cat, but it wasn’t there. I’ve torn the damn place apart and there isn’t a cat anywhere.”
Speaking in this passage is Julie, the romantic interest of the main character in “Upside Down,” which appeared in the 2016-17 issue of The Idaho Review. We eventually learn that, far from hallucinating, Julie (who is a little bananas, otherwise) is indeed seeing ghost cats. They haunt a structure that was a brothel in its salad days, which is about as Montana as it gets for story material.
I’m breaking at least two of my own rules to include these cats in the lineup. Besides being the only animals on this list not in Dog Run Moon, I’m decidedly not a cat person. I often choose to ignore cats for the same reasons a lot of folks refuse to refer to our sitting president by name, as if I might successfully ignore a popular domesticated animal out of reality. It hasn’t worked. But Wink’s cats are ghosts, so maybe all this time, I’ve only had an aversion to living cats and haven’t known it. In any case, “Upside Down” was my intro to Wink, and I was so signed on with the sheer imaginative merit of brothel ghost cats that I sought out more of his stuff. And now, as if in a Miltonic twist of felix culpa, the dead cats started a chain of events creating an occasion to remark on many great dogs. So perhaps there’s a benign purpose for cats after all.
2. Montana Bob’s dog
Sid unhooked the chain from the dog’s collar, and when he turned to leave, the dog followed him to his truck, jumped in, and sat on the bench seat, leaning forward with his nose smudging the windshield.
“Dog Run Moon”
The dog in the title story of Wink’s debut collection, like the whole story itself, is a solid opener. And as somebody who has a deviant affection for silent era cinema, there’s a particular delight and humor to this story that comes from one character in particular. The human characters and this dog have a way reinforcing the tone and conventions of silent cinema that give this story, and its chase scenes in particular, a register somewhere in between slapstick and earnest desperation. Though Montana Bob’s dog has less personality than some of the animals recognized deeper in this list, I made a deliberate choice to rank these creatures in terms of memorability. Montana Bob’s dog has that going as a consequence of being, in a sense, a title character. But he’s also the rare dog in Wink’s collection that actually has a bearing on the central conflict between human characters in the story.
Since retiring, she’d volunteered at the animal shelter three days a week. She’d adopted dogs, of course, one or two a year, and she currently had nine, mostly mutts except one purebred Dalmatian that showcased all of the magnificent idiocy inherent in its pedigree.
The she in this passage is our old friend Lauren, also the owner of the previously mentioned doggie duo Elton John. I can tell Rocks is a misunderstood star. However, it’s unclear whether the burden of misunderstanding resides with the character, the author, or both. Rocks might be the only technically non-mongrel dog in a story collection otherwise teeming with them. In addition to the emphasis on his “magnificent idiocy,” we’re later told that the dog was named “after the contents of its head.”
Rocks, I have to admit, was not my initial favorite for the top spot, but he did stick with me. He has the advantage of being the last named animal in order of appearance in Dog Run Moon. But if I’m being completely honest, Rocks really appeals to my fatal and time-honored attraction to idiots and antiheroes (in essence, people like me). The writing on the wall that sealed Rocks’ supremacy was something I saw while still appraising Wink’s dogs: A shop in Lone Pine, California that made much fanfare of the fact that they sold ROCKS with a neon light. Lone Pine is a small town in the Owens Valley known best for its proximity to the Eastern Sierra Range and Mt. Whitney in particular. Having grown up in a Yellowstone gateway community myself, I sympathized with Lone Pine’s need to assert itself against a society that tends to relegate the town to means-to-an-end status: A mere base camp for folks climbing to the highest point in the contiguous United States the next day. I understood why Lone Pine would force an issue like ROCKS. In contrast, Wink’s Rocks has no insecurities about his magnificent idiocy. He’s an idiot with integrity, and I realized how much I admired that when I saw such desperation from a separate iteration of his name.
Critics have received Wink’s prose warmly, and judging by the folks who blurbed his first edition hardcover of Dog Run Moon, the guy is here to stay (maybe even heel). Wink suggested in this October 2017 interview that his forthcoming novel will reprise the character August from “Breatharians,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2012 and is the fourth story in Dog Run Moon. The short story basis for the novel has no shortage of dogs and barn cats, so it’s likely we’ll have yet more animals from Wink’s mind palace to meet in short order. In the interim, I’ll miss meeting his dogs on the page. But perhaps it's enough for now that I can’t see a Dalmatian without thinking of Rocks, my cousin’s Pointers without thinking of Elton John, or even any useless cats now without knowing they may have a redeeming quality yet when they die.