Readers are the picky eaters of the academic world. Some prefer a salty first person account, some have a sweet tooth for the romance novel, some want a juicy slab of mystery novel, and some prefer a light magazine salad.
That said, Arthur Bradford’s debut story collection, “Dogwalker,” is pure Tabasco sauce: If you have a taste for it, you’ll love it. But it’s the kind of thing that some people just can’t stomach.
Bradford’s weird tales of loveable halfwits, deformed puppies, and circus freak romance have been embraced by a crop of contemporary writers known for their own oddball antics, including David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, and Dave Eggers. Unlike his postmodern peers, however, Bradford’s narrative style doesn’t fall into the trap of being pretentious or clever to the point of inaccessibility. In fact, his writing is pared back to the extreme simplicity of lines in a children’s’ story.
It is that simplicity that makes the stories’ content so unnerving. The first person narrators of the collection talk about having sex with dogs, finding giant slugs, and men shut in closets with a bland matter-of-factness that is somewhat distressing. If they weren’t so na?ve, one would be inclined to judge these people as degenerates, but there is something disarmingly sweet and good intentioned about the whole lot.
In “Little Rodney,” for instance, the narrator kills a pregnant pet snake that he believes ate his dog. When the snake’s owner confronts him, he tells her simply, “I’m very sorry for what I have done.” And the reader can believe that as the two clasp hands and say a prayer.
For some it will be difficult to swallow the plainness with which these outlandish stories are packaged, and even harder to accept the strangely happy endings. Even more difficult for readers who like their stories on the traditional side will be the fact that many of the tales have little in the way of ending at all.
There is a dreamlike quality about these accounts in that they are not bound by the confines of familiar plot structure. There is a clearly defined climax to each story, but it is frequently floating free from any companion action, or, it sometimes seems, any kind of point. It is telling that the collection is prefaced by a passage from Richard Linklater’s “Slacker”: “It was like the premise for this whole book was that every thought you have creates its own reality, you know?”
The author’s own reality has been fairly uncommon as well.
Arthur Bradford, a Maine native and Yale graduate, has worked at Camp Jabberwocky, a camp for adults with disabilities, since 1993. In his first year, he worked on a project wherein campers with Down’s syndrome conducted man-on-the-street interviews. Later, Bradford made a documentary about Camp Jabberwocky, including some of the footage from the 1993 project. The film got the attention of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the “South Park” series.
With their encouragement, Bradford got funding to make a feature movie called “How’s Your News?” that documented the cross-country travel and interviews by five reporters with disabilities. Now finished, the film will air on HBO/Cinemax in April 2002.
It is perhaps his work with the campers and reporters that have made Bradford as fascinated and touched by the experience of living with a body that is somehow out of the ordinary as his stories show him to be.
For some, these stories will be a little too strange, too outlandish, or, in some cases, too gross. But there is something about them, for all their oddities, that makes them strangely down-to-earth.
Arts & Entertainment Editor Meghan Conley can be contacted at: [email protected]