Dog on Fire
- By Terese Svoboda
- University of Nebraska Press
- 204 pp.
- Reviewed by Nick Havey
- May 15, 2023
Two damaged, vastly different women navigate a shared grief.
Grief — whether brought on by the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, or something altogether more trivial — is a challenging emotion, distracting and all-consuming. Dog on Fire is a novel about grief. Like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s a wondrous and lyrical exploration of loss. But whereas Saunders’ work leans into the supernatural, Terese Svoboda’s story is searing in its familiarity. Her dazzling prose electrifies the quotidian and makes both the familiar and unfamiliar trappings of grief feel catalytic.
It opens in a storm shaking loose dust from the earth and spirits from the subconscious. Our unnamed narrator, a middle-aged woman who has returned to her family home following the death of her epileptic brother and the dissolution of her marriage, stands in the tempest, chasing not a funnel cloud but the image of her dead sibling, who was a digger, holding a shovel alongside the road.
Also unnamed, this brother recently died in his newly purchased hot tub, which he was enjoying at the time with his lover, Aphra, the only named character in the book. Electrified, literally, the dead man is the heart of the story. Aphra, characterized almost exclusively by her abject poverty and even more abject obesity, is the artery-clogging plaque that may have caused the accident that killed him.
The novel roughly follows the narrator’s, her son’s, and her father’s experience navigating their brother/uncle/son’s death. The chapters are alternately narrated by the sister and by Aphra. Convinced that Aphra had a hand in her brother’s death, the sister is hellbent on proving…something: that Aphra has blood on her hands; that he isn’t dead at all; that she did see a dog, its tail soaked in kerosene and alight, running through a field; that Aphra doesn’t deserve to mourn the way her family does. The sister cycles through all five stages of grief and back again, her daily focus seemingly on anything other than the reality of her brother’s demise.
For her part, Aphra is certain her lover’s nephew is him reincarnated and tries to spend as much time as possible with the family, often to disgusting effect. To Aphra, her behavior is justified by her bond with the deceased; to the dead man’s family, she is a tick gnawing away at them. Aphra is like a ghost haunting the family, but she, too, is haunted by the memory of a lover who was the only person in town, and in her life, who was genuinely kind to her. The fat-shaming she has endured — and continues to endure — is horrifying.
Eventually — after an incident involving the book’s titular flammable pup, some sadistic teens, and Aphra’s actions that save them — the narrator and Aphra come to share in their grief, albeit in a jarring way. Together, they dig up the brother’s grave to confirm that he’s dead — or to prove that he’s alive, as they’ve both hoped and hallucinated — all the while navigating complex, sometimes disorienting emotions. Reflects the sister:
“My feelings lose air like one of those fancy egg white dishes that collapse if you open the oven door…You just have to open the oven of the present by thinking something past or future.”
Dog on Fire, as its name implies, is a spectacle that cannot be looked away from. It is also a blistering commentary in the tradition of “flyover fiction” like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. While some of this commentary bleeds into needlessly fatphobic territory — Aphra is often a plus-sized punching bag — it gives rise to the kind of painful but hard-earned blister that comes from difficult, compelling work.
Nick Havey is a senior manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.