The Dog Star, by Donald Windham
The Dog Star.|
Hill Street Classics, 1998 (reprint).
226 pages, $14.95 (paperback).
Hill Street Classics' reprint of this 1950 novel contains an afterword from the author written almost fifty years after publication. In Windham's look back, he recalls starting the book at a tender twenty-two, finishing it six years later, and having it meet the rare good fortune of being accepted by the first publisher he approached with it. That publisher, Doubleday, jumped on the book for the neat fit it made into the buzz topic of "juvenile delinquency."
For its reissue, Hill Street applies a different spin, haling The Dog Star as, "a landmark classic of southern literature." It's not. The novel—with its focus on urban anomie, the dysfunctional family and vanishing traditions—owes more to Existentialism than it does to the legacy of the "Dixie Limited." Its stifling interiority enfolds the reader as snugly as Sartre's Nausea, Camus' The Stranger, or Robert Müsil's Young Türless. Which certainly helps to account for the book's warm reception in Europe, where it earned the praise of Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, and Messrs. Gide and Camus.
The central characters of Windham's novel are named "Blackie" and "Whitey." They're childhood friends—were, rather. Though he is central to the plot, Whitey is dead and buried before the story begins. He committed suicide in the midst of some vaguely erotic involvement with Blackie . . . this during their residence at a sort of boarding school or detention center on the outskirts of Atlanta. It's all kind of hazy how far things went between the boys, and at times my curiosity to learn more about the true nature of this friendship and its sudden demise was the only thing that carried me through the novel. The risk Windham took by setting up his tale this way was that the dead character's story might seem more interesting than the survivor's. In my opinion, it's a hazard Windham did too little to avoid. Wanting to know more about Whitey inflamed my impatience with a plot that erred by committing itself to the wrong main character.
Despite the obvious suggestiveness of their names, Blackie and Whitey are both white, "racially" speaking. Reading along, I wondered if one of the characters started off black, but Windham backed away from this development to avoid something as potentially controversial as a homoerotic, interracial friendship. If there had been such a retreat, the author left nothing behind. The hobgoblin of race never reveals itself in Windham's book, except by force of a conspicuous absence. If this is indeed "a landmark classic of southern literature," it would be the only one of its kind to completely ignore the racial segregation of southern society.
The gender dynamics of the novel are equally atypical of regional southern fiction and bear a closer resemblance to pulp fiction of the "hard-boiled" variety. Blackie's involvement with an older woman Mabel is bloodless and boring. Her function seems limited to providing Blackie with the interpersonal validation teenage narcissists occasionally require to go on loving themselves. Blackie's regard for women—mother, sister, Mabel—operates according to one rigid design. He perceives only frailty in them, seeing women and his feelings for them as threats to his nascent manhood. Determined to set himself apart from all things feminine, Blackie swears, "he would never be so weak as to depend on any other person for his happiness." As it turns out, Blackie can rely least of all on himself for that happiness. Fear and anger rampage in the absence of the love and approval he inwardly craves from the women close to him.
While reading the book, there were times I accused the author of depleting the vitality of his story by forcing it to adhere to "real-life" (or his version of it). When fiction offers an author no possibilities outside of "reality," then fiction turns into something else . . . journalism, sociology, or propaganda. The role of author as sociologist is one I don't think Windham would have abjured. I think he entered this novel as a "what-if" exploration of juvenile delinquency (perhaps fully aware he'd chosen a commodity topic). On the one hand, Blackie is just beginning to explore his independence from his family and the new opportunities presented by his sexual maturity. On the other, his entrance into the new world of work and sex comes at great cost. Blackie would rather avoid the limitations one assumes coming of age—limitations that transform egoistic cravings into the civil instincts of duty, empathy, love. But Blackie never stops believing that "growing up" is a trap—a trap that prevents escape by turning the trapped into trappers themselves. It's a convoluted logic, and to be honest, many of this character's motives made no sense at all, which I guess is the point. He's young. It's the prerogative of the young to feel and truly be lost. I, however, am not so young, and I have had the good fortune of realizing that growing up is closer to an acquittal than a death sentence. While characters can be frustrating, as this one surely is, they never make "mistakes." They can only do as designed by their authors. The word "wrong" is a gavel that doesn't belong in the evaluation of our fictional selves, but if it did, I would stove in Blackie's head with it.
The risk of every Bildungsroman is in its solitary devotion to one character. The novel bellyflops for any reader who just doesn't like the hero. Blackie, to me, comes off as a grossly self-absorbed almost-man whose narcissistic pond-gazing yields no trace of self-discovery. Blackie's blind loyalty to his "he-man, woman-hater" persona makes it difficult for the rest of us to loan him our emotions. After all, how could our estimation ever compete with his own fervent self-worship? Despite my every attempt to relate to Blackie as a "sympathetic reader," my sympathies snoozed, and the blame for that falls on Windham alone.
In the course of the book's events, we watch Blackie's sorrow for his dead friend transform itself into smug self-righteousness. We follow Blackie's movements through an Atlanta demimonde of bored teenagers, petty crooks, and knife-eyed bootleggers. We watch—with somewhat keener interest—a vicious beating at the hands of rival hooligans. Then we ride along shotgun on Blackie's flight and his eventual return to this urban southern underworld. But by the time The Dog Star deposits its protagonist in the bedroom of a slum-dwelling pervert with a pearl-handled revolver lodged in a dresser drawer . . . some readers will be ready to do it for the boy.
Which brings me to what most disturbed me about this book. It wasn't at all the tragedy of the ending. It was my sense of satisfaction in it. I actually found myself thinking of suicide as something some people DESERVE. It worried me to discover in myself a cynicism so pure. I wonder how much mourning Windham did over his character once he hit on the big finis to cut himself loose of his creation. I suspect Windham was more relieved than dismayed. I suspect he was every bit as glad to finish writing about Blackie as I was glad to be done reading about him.