By Mitch Wieland
Southern Methodist University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
The author, whose MFA degree is from the University of Alabama, teaches at Boise State University, where he is founding editor of The Idaho Review. Each of the ten titled chapters in this book first appeared as a short story in The Sewanee, Southern, Yale, or Kenyon Reviews, TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, StoryQuarterly, or Prairie Schooner. That the author has a significant presence in elite literary circles is borne out by dust jacket blurbs from Melanie Rae Thon, Anthony Doerr, Brad Watson, George Core, Richard Ford, Lee K. Abbott, and Alan Cheuse.
On realizing the central figure is a man called Swan (the name is in three of the story titles), some readers may be disappointed not to find a parallel with Marcel Proust’s iconic protagonist of the same surname, although, of course, that one is spelled with two n’s. Wieland’s Swan, a former high school teacher, has retired to become a sheep rancher on “a blustery ridge ...one hundred acres of sagebrush and chaparral... eighty miles south-southeast of Boise, in the middle of not much else but the wide, curving sky.” He’s also called by his first name, Ferrell. In another spelling, that melodic word could suggest a canine terror apposite to the title God’s Dogs, which apparently refers to the coyotes that inhabit and haunt the majestic setting where dawn seeps “like blood into the sky.” The harsh title also brings to mind the country curse/catch phrase “God-dawg it.”
Other characters include Swan’s drop-in-visitors: his ex-wife Rilla, who parades around the terrain in English riding gear or naked, and her wastrel son, Levon, who explains whenever someone asks him about his name that it came from one of Elton John’s songs—“You know, the oldies tune where this Levon dude names his son Jesus.” There are also two eccentric old men, one of whom lives “underground” in a cave, and the other has a miserable and improbable young wife.
Whether these stories have been altered since their original publication is not revealed. The present-tense, highly descriptive writing and the imagery it evokes are at times quite satisfying and beautiful, but there’s more panorama here than drama. To call this interesting collation of stories a novel may be a bit of a stretch. July 2009
Julia Oliver is a Montgomery writer.