Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sight Hound by Pam Houston

I should start with a disclaimer: I'm feeling very lucky right now. This coming semester, I not only get to meet Pam Houston, and I not only get to have her come to talk to my short fiction writing class, but I also get to interview her for Weber: The Journal of the Contemporary West.

I should follow with another disclaimer: I have always wanted to own an Irish Wolfhound.

Early in the book, I discovered that I had to read it while sitting on the floor so that either Balto or Poppet could be laying against me. It is a book that requires you to be petting a dog while you read. Maybe a cat would work, but I don't think so. A three-legged Irish Wolfhound would be ideal, but any good dog will do.  Houston writes dogs with such affection that to not be petting a dog as you read seems...ungrateful. She gets dogs right: their affection, patience, loyalty, but perhaps most importantly, their ability to teach us if we are open to listening. The book centers its story on an Irish Wolfhound battling cancer. The people who love him revolve as constellations, their plots unfolding along this trajectory.

I love how easy her writing is to read. I flew through this book. I know many a literature lover (Faulknerians in particular) who see that trait with skepticism, as if a book must be hard to read to have any depth, but I've always found that bias to be suspect. I see no reason to doubt clarity. What makes me suspect a book has depth isn't its obfuscations but rather that moment when I'm doing something that is totally not reading (driving a car, showering, rifling through the fridge in search of mayo) and I start thinking about the characters and the choices they make and what surprised me and why it was nevertheless fitting. I start thinking about the human (or the Wolfhound, or the Labrador) psyche and why we love as we do and what art means and what the West means and what it means to be a woman in a male-centric landscape. This book has me there, thinking about all these things in a way that is far from simple.

Houston's characters are amazing. In a world where people seem to be smoothing their differences away to better fit in with the crowd, Houston's people are notable for what is different: a second-rate actor who needs an audience in all aspects of life, who finds he has been crazy only because he was playing to one audience and who finds himself sane when a new audience requires that role of him; a middle-aged woman who makes one bad romantic decision after another in spite of all appearances of self sufficiency and strength; an ex-hockey star and religious fanatic who tries, in the most ill-advised ways, to convert those he loves. Houston doesn't judge her characters. She simply allows them to interact and give birth to a plot uniquely their own.

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