October 2008

C J Arellano

fiction

One Dog Happy by Molly McNett

Who says that a docile dog is always a good dog?

In One Dog Happy, the charming debut short story collection from Molly McNett, the Midwestern farm-raised author offers seven resonant portraits of confused characters on the brink of growing up, though many of them fall into traps set by their own murky perspective and shallow logic. The majority of McNett’s episodes find comfort in the internal and languidly paced: McNett clearly prefers to study her naïve protagonists alone in their sunny bedrooms and dusty kitchens, thinking troublesome thoughts about their sisters, their bodies, or themselves. McNett still entrances when her prose is ponderous, but her writing truly springs to life when she finally lets it run loose in the yard. 

Much of McNett’s collection centers on female childhood. She strives to paint the topic with such simultaneous cuteness and despair that one might imagine these protagonists’ minds consisting of nothing but a field of pastel pink landmines. In “Catalog Sales,” two adolescent sisters learn of their divorced father’s brand-new mail-order Filipino girlfriend. The story all but writes itself: the dumbfounded reaction of his ex-wife, the inevitable farce of the newly minted Filipino family member cooking exotic meals for the stunned-quiet siblings… it plays out like the dutiful dramedy McNett wants it to be. While “Catalog Sales” is written in a third-person voice appropriate to the perspective of an intelligent eleven-year-old girl, it falls short in approaching an actual structure of story. There is some cathartic-sounding rumination after the girls dig through the new woman’s beauty products, but -- as with many of McNett’s stories -- the tragic and beautiful realizations are all internal. They don’t add up to anything tangible. There is no consequence of actual events, and so no events of consequence. The story fades to black before we really know how these characters -- the curious sisters, the out-of-place Filipino woman, the quietly desperate father -- will resolve the muted drama between each other. McNett displays this imbalance of heavy internal realization and thin external consequence in a handful of her other stories, including “Bactine” and “Alewives.” These stories are wonderfully told with a neat prose style and occasionally sharp eye to little details toward life’s little passionless moments, but all McNett needs in order to truly transport an audience with these stories are significant and visible climaxes. 

By contrast, she nails it in the stronger half of her collection, which includes “Ozzie the Burro,” “Wishbone,” and the titular episode, “One Dog Happy.” Though the events of “One Dog Happy” sound unmistakably like an often-told grandfather’s joke involving the faked death of a loved pet, McNett adorns the classic yarn with a clever and comically sad comparison between the protagonist, a nebbish man with the frumpy nickname of Mr. Bob, and his indirect antagonist, a loud and proud minister who seems to get whatever he listed in last night’s prayers. As usual, McNett observes Mr. Bob like a lab rat as he wades through his solitary moments, but for once his thoughts lead to comically suspenseful actions. “One Dog Happy,” ending in a punchline as it might, is the first of McNett’s character studies to double as an actual page turner. 

“Wishbone” is rewarding in a similar fashion -- McNett constructs a tapestry of lonely thoughts that lead to drastic and exciting actions, not the least of which involves a gun-toting farmer rumored to engage in inappropriate dalliances with his stable of ponies. The clear pinnacle of the collection, however, is “Ozzie the Burro,” in which McNett weaves her penchants and fortes -- female insecurity and subsequent triumph, the zeitgeist of Chicago, the exposure and confrontations of one’s most damning flaws -- into a winning harmony. The story is a compilation of e-mails from a woman named Grace written to a man named Will. (Why these two of all names? Sure, McNett successfully sews the reality of brand names and pop culture references into her stories, but in this instance, naming her characters “Will” and “Grace” is needlessly distracting.) McNett never includes any e-mails written by Will; we are only meant to infer his half of the correspondence from Grace’s growing collection of “Dear Will”s. At first, it’s jarring. Why silence Will? He’s just as much a part of this love story as Grace is, right? As “Ozzie the Burro” forges on, however, and Grace reveals more of her jaw-dropping personality and past, we get it: this is incidentally a love story. At its core, it’s the dramatic purging of a woman’s secrets, burdens, guilt, and self-perceived shortcomings, all with an online stranger as her audience. “Ozzie the Burro” is the sharpest example of what McNett reaches for in every moment of her One Dog Happy collection: to observe what it takes for a lost human to break the surface to salvation.

One Dog Happy by Molly McNett
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 158729687X
132 Pages