b Papa Dog's Blog: The Dog Shelter and the Light Brigade

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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Dog Shelter and the Light Brigade

Literary spoilers below, if you care. Don’t read if you don’t want to know how a couple of short stories end.

I’ve been making my way through the book of Jim Shepard stories, and in fact yesterday’s post was in a way inspired by one of them. The story, “Reach for the Sky,” is about an employee at an animal shelter, fed up with the people dropping off unwanted dogs that will most likely end up euthanized. All day long, he sees dogs getting dropped off by people who don’t generally display much sense of responsibility. He tries not too successfully to hide his contempt for them while still trying to talk them into keeping the dogs. It’s a very short story, but it manages a really delicate shift in sympathy in a very short space. For the first while, I was quite naturally nodding along and identifying with the shelter guy – for one thing, I too hated the customers when I worked retail. For another, the people dropping off the dogs – or rather, their children, who get delegated to do the drop-off – do seem to be shallow selfish people. How dare they take responsibility for a dog and then send it off to be killed because it chewed a slipper? That is – if you’ll refer back to my last post – breaking the compact. Bad human, no biscuit. Then a man in a wheelchair shows up, wanting to drop off his eleven-year-old Irish setter. The shelter guy immediately gets his hackles up. He starts asking probing questions, trying to find a way to get the wheelchair guy to keep the dog. He fails to see the obvious: the dog is immaculately groomed; the man in the wheelchair has taught it tricks. Clearly, the man has cared for the dog, is close to the dog; and clearly, if he’s giving her up it’s because he has to, for reasons that simply aren’t any business of the man behind the counter at the animal shelter. The shelter guy’s relentless, though. He keeps asking questions and trying to talk the wheelchair man out of leaving the dog until they come to this final, impassable exchange:

“If I were you I’d keep that dog.”
“If you were me you would’ve wheeled this thing off a bridge eleven years ago. If you were me you wouldn’t be such a dick. If you were me you would’ve taken this dog, no questions asked.”

The story’s barely six pages long, and it’s a really lovely bit of craft, the way the narrator goes from seeming like a put-upon speed bump in a superhighway of inhumanity to a petty little bureaucratic thug. Of course, he’s both things, which is why he still manages to retain the reader’s sympathy in the end.

The next story I found even more effective. It’s called “Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava.” For those of you who aren’t up on your 19th century European history – and I suppose there might be one or two of you – “the 17th Lancers at Balaclava” would be the Charge of the Light Brigade, which was both one of the greatest acts of bravery and one of the greatest acts of stupidity ever undertaken by British soldiers. What happened was: at the end of the most remarkable day in the Crimean War, the commander of the British forces, seeing a detachment of Russians carrying away the British guns on the heights, sent orders to the Light Brigade to follow the enemy and prevent them from carrying away the guns. The problem was, the order was so vaguely worded as to be nonsensical when received by the Light Brigade. The pillaging Russians weren’t visible from where they were situated. The only Russians with artillery they could see were the ones in the main mass of the Russian army arrayed before them. The order seemed to be directing the Light Brigade – fewer than 700 horsemen – to charge across an open plain a mile long into the face of an army arrayed around three sides of the plain. The very thought was lunacy, so of course they did it. Shepard makes a nice analogy: “It’s as if a dachshund, turned loose to sic a kitten that it didn’t know was nearby, decided instead to go after what it could see: a bear flanked by wolves.” They charged the Russian guns and were destroyed. Fewer than 200 of the Light Brigade survived the disaster.

Shepard’s story begins: “Alicia and Emmett find themselves with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava.” Emmett, it appears, is a Captain in the Light Brigade and Alicia, his wife, is apparently a subordinate officer. Right away this seems odd as, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, there weren’t any women in the Light Brigade or anywhere else in the British cavalry in the 19th century. Eventually it becomes clear that they are not, in fact, with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava, but at their home in New Jersey, where they’re waiting to learn whether or not the lumps below their three-year-old son’s lymph nodes are cancer. The story continues to flit back and forth between Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava and Alicia and Emmett at home in New Jersey, arguing. Emmett, it turns out, is a costume designer, which makes sense of the microscopic detail used to describe the Hussar’s caps and the piping on the officers’ trousers. Emmett has always been obsessed with the Light Brigade, and now he’s got the chance to be the technical consultant on a multi-million dollar version of the story. It’s his dream job, but he has to got to Hollywood now to meet with the producers if he wants the job. Alicia is aghast. How can he ever consider leaving his family at such a time of crisis? As the story continues to cut back and forth between Balaclava and New Jersey, we see that Emmett is filtering his life through the metaphor most dominant in his mind at the time. The pursuit of his own ambition, it seems, is the Valley of Death. What he really needs to do is stay home and take care of his family, but he seems doomed to charge.

Conceptually, it’s kind of similar to the Mars Attacks! story I mentioned a post or three back, but for my money it works a whole lot better. The Mars Attacks! story struck me as a little too mechanistic and overly impressed with its own cleverness. This one works a lot more organically and builds to a climax that truly justifies the metaphor.

But hey, maybe this all just means I’m liking stories about dogs and babies more lately.

In other things: You may have noticed that I closed the “Which of Papa Dog's preoccupations do you find the most interesting?” poll. With a whopping statistical sample of ten votes, the final tally was a tie between the stuff about the baby and the cranky rants about bad customer service. I was saddened to see that nobody was willing to stand up for the stuff about how he really needs to read all those old newspapers. Still stuck in mid-August, if you were wondering. I’ve decided that I’m going to put new polls up every Tuesday and Friday, so you’ve got a couple of days to make your views known on the subject of my food aversions.


Blogger Brownstein said...

Man, even for the internet that poll is self indulgent. It's like you're becoming Joe Matt or something.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to vote for the newspaper thing, but on my Netscape browser the radio buttons didn't show up, so I didn't know how to vote, and by the time I used IE on your site you had already changed the poll.

paul Anonymous

6:28 PM  

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