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Callan Wink: “Dog Run Moon”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Callan Wink’s “Dog Run Moon” was originally published in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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Wink is a debut author from the west, where I grew up, and for whatever reason those types of short stories usually work for me.  On the one hand, I really liked this story.  It’s quick and fun and interesting.  On the other hand, I’m not sure the ending worked for me — so please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

“Dog Run Moon” has a simple premise.  Sid, the narrator, is running naked in the moonlight alongside a dog, while Montana Bob and his accountant, Charlie Chaplin, chase him down on an ATV.  Sid’s feet are getting torn on the rocks.  Here’s how the story begins:

Sid was a nude sleeper.  Had been ever since he was a little kid.  To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something.  And that was why he was now running barefoot and bare-assed across the sharp sandstone rimrock far above the lights of the town.  It was after two in the morning, clear, cool, early-June night, with the wobbly gibbous moon up high and bright, so that he could see the train yard below — the crisscrossing rails, a huge haphazard pile of old ties, the incinerator stack.  He was sweating, but he knew that once he could run no more the cold would start to find its way in.  After that, he didn’t know what would happen.

The dog, technically, is Montana Bob’s, but after one bad day Sid “liberated” it.  So, in a way, this is all about a dog, though there’s a subtext.  Here’s a glimpse, when Sid is worried the dog will give away their position:

The problem was the dog.  Sid would have to cut a wide path around to keep the dog from straying close to the lights, and, if the dog was captured, then what was the point?  Another thought: might the dog return to its former owner willingly?  Sid was unsure.  He kept running.

The day Sid liberated the dog he was on his way home after a failed visit to “her,” a nameless woman Sid had spent “years of nights” with.  They were both naked sleepers, but one night she got into bed with some clothes, and the next she didn’t come to bed at all.  So, who knows if this dog needed liberating or whether Sid is even good for it, but he likes to run.  As the night goes on, Sid’s mind waxes poetic and imagines what he’d tell her:

Since we dissolved I’ve been a spectre running blind and naked in the desert.  Is that melodramatic?  Well, that’s what is happening to me now.

At any rate, even though I’m not sure how I feel about it, I really liked reading it and I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts.  How does this all tie together?  What’s with the dissolving and the evaporation — and the feet?

13 thoughts on “Callan Wink: “Dog Run Moon””

  1. Betsy says:

    This is a terrific story, Trevor.

    Before I say anything about the story, though, I want to note that the author, Callan Wink, is a story himself. Bookbench tells us he is presently an MFA candidate at the University of Wyoming. Unfledged! But flown!

    It appears that he has published a few nice things in a western journal called “Outside Bozeman”. This is quite an event – Callan Wink’s New York debut.

    This New Yorker story succeeds in so many ways, is so alive, that I am reluctant to tear into it, or relish it, don’t want to, until you’ve read it.

    But I’ll say this: it’s fresh, it’s real, it’s familiar and strange, and it’s quite beautiful.

    I do want to note that the piece is a little scary, quite sad, a little funny, a mite touching, and a lot local, with a whole lot of story telling that builds up to some drop-dead lyric riffs. I loved it.

    And it reads just as well the second time.

  2. Trevor says:

    Betsy, I finally got my thoughts (as they are) down above. I did really like it and I’m thrilled about your enthusiasm, which I think Wink deserves. As I said in my post above, how does this all tie together??

  3. Betsy says:

    Callan Wink’s “Dog Run Moon” is about what happens after a man loses his woman, a woman who has gotten tired of waiting for something that she wants from him, which we know, because when the whole thing falls apart, we overhear Sid overhearing her cry in the bathroom. And then what he thought was wonderful is just over. Just like that. He can hardly take it in.

    In his mind’s eye, later in the story, when he’s beginning to get some clarity, Sid sees her “laid out on their bed, a night-blooming moonflower, her white limbs like petals unfolding…”

    What matters in the story telling is that it takes Sid half the story to arrive at this gorgeous knowledge. In the meantime, he has gotten himself diverted down a bad road – having stolen the very valuable dog of a local tough guy.

    What’s key about the dog story is that Sid knew this was a very valuable and wonderful bird dog. He comes from this neck of the woods – he knows that fabulous bird dogs do not grow on trees. Come between a man and his hunting dog – and you’ve got big trouble. (Permit me to share: some hunting dogs take a year to train, and even then, you have to train them every day to keep the electricity flowing. And some people pay other people to train their dog, which is what Montana Bob may have done, or what his benefactor, Guy St. Vrain, may have done.) So Sid’s theft is really a theft. It’s not a “liberation”. It’s a provocation.

    (And do not be sidetracked by the fact the hunting dog lives in the yard. Hunting dogs that live outside often are healthier than dogs that live in the house. I now that seems shocking, but it is true. And in fact, this seems true of this dog, given his beauty and energy.)

    Sid is, knowingly or not, looking for way big enough to express how terrible he feels about losing this woman. Also, in coming from this territory (where many people hunt, where many women hunt) Sid knows that most hunters are actually just regular guys. Maybe they might have sartorial taste that offends, but they aren’t bad guys. He knows that hunters are not varmints; he knows they eat their meat, not humans, the way we eat the meat we get from Stop and Shop.) It’s just that it’s certain, having lifted the dog, the provocation will get a reaction.

    And that is really just what Sid needs – a big enough event to loosen his feelings to the point he understands what the heck has happened to him – how he came to lose this girl.

    The language about “liberating” the dog is kind of a red herring. Wink is kind of having at the reader, seeing if he can sucker us in. This story is not about an unhappy dog; the story is about an unhappy man. (In fact, Sid tells us that the dog is hearty, beautiful and healthy, full of gumption and life – a life he could live with either Montana Bob or Sid, even though maybe Sid looked a little better.)

    And so, in fact, when the “bad” guy, comes after Sid, it is just what Sid needed. What surprises him, though, is that the “bad” guy has a buddy who really does feel bad. So that gives us all a little zing, when Sid says that he “considered Charlie Chaplin [Montana Bob's buddy], and when their eyes met, he felt something skittering and cold move down his spine.” So maybe this will not end well, thinks the reader. (More games) That’s not the last we hear of Charlie; in fact, the last we hear of Charlie, he thoughtfully does Sid a favor that Sid sorely needs.

    And, actually, we get a hint about MOntana Bob, that he’s playing a role in this game – when he pours a pitcher of water into his hat and puts the hat on his head. He’s all steamed up.

    What we have here is a game, a game that Sid needs in order to give his sorrow flesh and breath. It’s also a game that Montana Bob plays with some finesse, and in fact, it’s a wonderful game the author plays with the reader.

    There’s a chase scene, where Montana Bob intends to retrieve his dog, and the chase goes on for several hours over very rocky terrain on a moonlit night – long enough for Sid to find out what it is he really feels – that he loved that girl with all his heart and soul and now he’s lost her.

    “Sid had no clear idea where he was running. It was a strange mode of navigation, more divination….”

    Sid was slowly, in being chased in the nude by two guys on an ATV, in being cut up by the rocks, in being exposed – Sid was slowly finding out what it was that had really happened to him and his girl. He has a series of lyric thoughtsabout himself and the girl – thoughts provoked by the running, and in his most lyric thinking, he remembers a cold excursion they took one winter, where they were very happy. It was the coldest day of the year, but “Underneath that ice, the river was still moving.” Understand, though, that the ice over this river was so thick you could “walk across it like you were crossing the street. But just below that shell, the current would be flowing.” And then he thinks directly of saying this to the girl, and how he would say, “That is my love for you.”

    One gets the feeling the reason he needs to say it now is that he had not said it then, from whence flowed all their problems.

    This passage, about three quarters through the story, tells us what happened. He does love her. But he’s a guy, and guys sometimes let love live beneath a layer of ice strong enough to support a car. If a woman can just melt that ice, well, she’s happy. But when you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes. Maybe she didn’t know how to melt it. Maybe he had no idea that shelf of ice didn’t feel like strength to her. Maybe he didn’t know that layer of ice didn’t feel like warmth to her. He certainly didn’t know until he ran himself into oblivion that he needed to tell her he loved her.

    As I say, we make lots of mistakes.

    There is a terrible scene at the lumberyard where Sid works, when a workman’s legs are crushed. Sid knows how awful this is, and this scene kind of puts the whole story in perspective. The workman’s suffering is truly terrible, and Sid knows it. The chase, involving the dog, the men, the ATV, the blood from the soles of Sid’s feet – this is just a game.

    At the very end, naked, bloodied, humiliated, sorrowful, Sid thinks of just continuing on towards her place – where he would “[beg] her to wash his feet.”

    What do we make of that? We’re not sure that would work. But maybe it would. Most likely it wouldn’t. But one thing for sure: this guy now knows about that layer of ice that might have been where it all went wrong. He’s had a glimmer: yes, his love is like the current beneath the river that never dies – but yes, sometimes that love might feel to other people like its kind of hard to find …

    But the game that frames the story? There is a kind of cracked quality to it that is funny – as if Sid has deliberately gotten himself into a cracked escapade that will crack his own desperate sadness. After all, he’s lost his girl, but he’s gained the close following of these two bozos. So there’s something kind of hopeful here. I kind of think he’ll do better next time. And maybe dog lifting won’t ever figure much with Sid in the future. Been there, done that.

  4. Betsy says:

    Actually, a couple of other thoughts.

    The title makes a nice comment on the story: that these episodes recur. Just as, periodically, this guy may need to run to get his head straight, he also may find love again. Also, the title suggeests that these episodes of clarifying lunacy happen, they are seasons.

    I liked getting to know Sid. He cares about the worker who gets hurt, and he plunges in to help. He likes dogs, likes to sleep in the nude, likes to think. He’s believably moonstruck by his disaster, in a comforting sort of way. As a reader, though, I’d like to think he’s doing this in my stead – that I might be spared this lunacy given my acquaintance with him. Or maybe not. Maybe I would just take comfort in his company the next I myself veer off…

    The thing I like best about Sid is the way he thinks: it takes him quite a while to clarify his thoughts. That feels oh so familiar. But the level of his lyric gifts feel like a gift to the reader, and surely his greatest quality and certainly a gift to the woman he finally opens up to.

    I liked the structure of the story – the way the dog story pairs up with the love story. Particularly, I am thinking about Montana Bob fights for his dog. Sid seems to be gearing up to fight for his girl – but of course, it may be too late. Maybe next time.

    I liked the way the story flirted with the ideas of drama, costume, and melodrama. I liked the way Sid struggled with the idea that expressing his emotions might be melodrama, the way he struggled to find a way to express his emotions that weren’t melodram. An oh so familiar problems in such unfamiliar and entertaining guise.

    I just didn’t know what to do with the name, Sid. Reminds me, inescapably, of the British poet, but still don’t know what to do with that.

  5. Helen says:

    The stuff about his angst seemed a little false to me.

    Five of my sons worked in lumber mills, as loggers and as log truck drivers. Meth was a requisite for survival. They were too tired to go running even so. I guess I’m too literal.

    The ‘accountant’ leaving his shoes blew me away.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your extended thoughts, Betsy. I’m still a bit hung up on the last line, but I love how you explicate the ice river metaphor, and your analysis makes me appreciate the piece even more (though I already quite liked it).

    Helen, I’m not sure he runs on a night after work (or I’ve forgotten it). Or perhaps it’s just the fear of the man with a gun. I suppose in the end you’re right that it doesn’t pay to be too literal with this story. I liked the part where Charlie Chaplin left his shoes and where we see that, as mad as he is, the worst he is going to do is poke Sid a few times because his eyes are hurting.

  7. Betsy says:

    Well, Trevor, Sid’s a mess, isn’t he? He owes his girl something, and it isn’t making her wash his dirty and bloody feet. The line reminds us, of course, of Mary washing Jesus’s feet (except that his feet were not bloody) – or of any of a number of other biblical examples and religious practices indicating a posture of forgiveness, humility, loyalty, honor… The line just extends Sid’s lunacy – the lunacy where we want things to be completely other than they are. Here’s hoping that when the sun comes up, he comes to his senses.

    So Mary washes Jesus’s feet in gratitude because he has raised her brother from the dead. Has Sid raised himself from the dead? Sort of, sort of not. He’s got a ways to go.

    Helen, the tin foil over the window did make me wonder if Montana Bob was a drug dealer/cooker – hence the money for the expensive dog and the strange accountant, hence their energy for the all night chase. But I did not make the meth connection to the lumberyard. Pretty scary work place conditions. But if Montana Bob is the local meth dealer, the story frames how casually we accept the nature of the web we live in – that Bob’s office would be in an alley not far from the lumberyard.

    I really like this story. There’s a life in it. There’s the surface of it, and then there’s the pulse.

  8. Ken says:

    I think we can all agree this time-this is a very strong debut, it puts to shame some of the more established authors-Murakami, Beattie-who’ve been in the New Yorker recently. A question (perhaps for Betsy): Why is the friend called “Charlie Chaplin?” That can’t be mere coincidence. As for the ending, I thought it was good. It’d be too pat to settle things more clearly. Life goes on and perhaps he’s learned something. I too though Bob was some sort of drug-dealer, what’s nice is that he and Charlie don’t take some melodramatic Cormac McCarthy style bloody revenge which is what I’d feared would happen. Also, there’s something so elemental here-running naked and pursued at night. It’s also very cinematic. I can imagine this making a very good film (one would have to put in the backstory a bit, and there’d be a temptation to make the ending more “conclusive”).

  9. Betsy says:

    Charlie Chaplin – that puzzled me, too, Ken. Something to the effect of “white milk masquerades as cream”; something to do with the name as costume, cloak, what have you; something to do with the real self being alternate to the self as it appears? After all, Charlie Chaplin was the little man who was everyone’s Everyman. This guy carries a big gun, and his mere look makes you think twice. If he’s Charlie Chaplin, things have undergone quite the sea-change.

    I wonder if Wink, when he sat down to write, knew he was going to name this guy Charlie Chaplin. I’m wondering, instead, if when he came to this section of the story, it just sounded right to him, kind of fit the gestalt of the story, kind of suited what Montana Bob might like his accountant to be known as. (a moniker which may have suited Bob for any number of reasons.) What got me about the accountant was the boat shoes: the preppiness coordinated with the large knife with the fake bone handle. More costume, more games.

    And what about his red eyes? His weeping? His generosity? It’s been quite a chase over rough rock under a “wobbly moon”. Topsy turvy, really, by the end.

    So no, I don’t really get it. You kind of wonder about all of them. You have just enough information about each of these people for the story to stay afloat. It has kind of the twang of a tall tale – in which, also, there is always quite a bit left out, in which there is also often an appealing and innocent hero.

    And so, in fact, the whole suggestion of drugs – is a suggestion. And that, too, may just be costume. Or not. This is a “wobbly moon” story. Perhaps a whole new genre. Reminds me, really, of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  10. Tim says:

    As for the name, Charlie Chaplin, the character never speaks, the real Charlie Chaplin starred in silent movies, and Kevin Smith would have sued Callahan Wink if Wink used the name Silent Bob. :)

    This is a fun story that keeps the reader running alongside Sid and turning pages.

    You can read a longer review here: http://timlepczyk.com/2011/09/28/review-dog-run-moon-callahan-wink.html.

  11. Bill Kennedy says:

    The story is intriguing, but the language is brilliant. I lapped the descriptive passages up as eagerly as Sid drank from the stock tank.

  12. Cathie says:

    This as fine a piece of short story writing as you’ll ever read.
    Prosaic, economical and sharply descriptive with a touch of black comedy.
    An engaging story. Hope there’s more to come.

  13. Aaron says:

    I’m far too late to the party on this one to point out that he goes by Charlie Chaplin because he never speaks, but I’ll agree with what’s been said in that this is certainly a lively story, and I buy Betsy’s (as usual) deep reading, which clarifies what the story is about: a man needing to suffer as a means of becoming worthy enough to reclaim his love. (That frozen river stuff; nicely put.) As I write in my own review (http://bit.ly/ttXQzD) I think there’s some religious symbolism in here too that I’m missing, particularly in the washing of one’s feet — and that makes sense, given the idea of atonement.

    The one thing I’m not getting, however, is an idea of what exactly it is that has driven these two nude sleepers apart, what suddenly made her fearful, what made him unable to pursue. It’s the one bit of subtlety that went too far for me, diminishing my appreciation of what I recognize to be a well-written experience.

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