God’s Dogs: A Novel in Stories
by Mitch Wieland
Southern Methodist University Press, 275 pages, $22.50
In Boise novelist Mitch Wieland’s God’s Dogs, Ferrell Swan, a sixty-year-old retired Ohio schoolteacher sets out to live alone in a cabin in the Idaho desert for many of the same reasons hermits have been taking to remote outposts for centuries: he seeks solitude, time to reflect in the wilderness, a chance to engage in the physical labor, and above all a break from his interpersonal failures. In heading to Idaho, Ferrell left behind three ex-wives, an angry stepson, and the many social obligations that come with teaching high school in the same community for decades. But the poor guy doesn’t get much of a break: on the first page of God’s Dogs, that ne’er-do-well stepson, Levon, shows up on Ferrell’s doorstep, needing to heal in the wake of a bar fight.
The two haven’t spoken for three years, but the men and Levon’s mother, Rilla, will talk a lot over the course of the book, hashing out what went wrong between them. Ferrell allows Levon to stay, but he’s not exactly happy about it. “Somewhere along the way he’s become a back-to-nature guy or a passive survivalist—he’s not sure which,” Wieland writes, “All he knows is he wanted to be left be after the divorce, and if being left alone meant doing for yourself, then so be it. He grew up working his grandfather’s farm in northeast Ohio—it wasn’t like he was some fed-up lawyer or business suit quitting his hundred thousand per to move to Idaho or Montana and talk to God. In his eyes he was simply returning to his roots for lack of any other damn thing to do.”
God’s Dogs is a “novel in stories,” and each chapter stands alone as a focused story, written in sharp prose with the pleasing density of language that good short stories have. All the chapters were published previously in literary magazines, and one chapter, “The Bones of Hagerman,” was included in the Best of the West 2009 anthology. But readers probably wouldn’t notice that the book is divided into stories if it weren’t for that subtitle. The structure is smooth, proceeding chronologically, with variable gaps in time between where one story leaves off and the next picks up, but always fixing on a critical episode in the evolving relationships between Ferrell, Levon, and Rilla, a triangle that builds to its unsettling climax before the end of the book.
Wieland works with elemental themes, the desert isolation of Ferrell’s cabin in some ways serving as a stage set to show what goes on between one man and one woman when all other distractions are taken away. The ravishing Rilla shows up and Levon disappears again, leaving Ferrell and Rilla to make love, take long—often naked—walks in the desert, and discuss their lives. They observe and howl with coyotes that take on symbolic resonance throughout the book, and Ferrell is reluctant to shoot the coyotes even when they start to destroy his lambs. They witness a herd of mustangs that so captures Rilla’s imagination that she determines to buy one at a BLM auction. But Levon didn’t disappear without stirring up trouble, as usual. Before taking off, Levon had a fling with Ferrell’s neighbor Cole’s much younger wife, leaving her pregnant. The repercussions of this sustain the plot’s momentum for the rest of the book.
As the story plays out, Ferrell realizes that in some ways he’s inherited his father’s tendency to abandon those who love him, and that he has come closer to realizing his father’s Western dream than he ever did. “His father was a flesh-and-blood contradiction, and despite his denial of the farmer’s life, he dreamed daily of the West, of cowboys riding beneath the high hot sun. At the time, it was beyond Ferrell how the man could transform a cattle drive into something other than days of heatstroke and an aching ass.” One day when Ferrell was a teenager, his father began to wear a Stetson and cowboy boots around their Ohio town. He moved to the basement, then left Ferrell and his mother, heading West, but making it no further toward realizing his Western dreams than Los Angeles.
As Ferrell, the would-be hermit learns in the accomplished God’s Dogs, dreams can be difficult to realize, and even their realization can leave one feeling hollow.