The Girls Heard a Growl: Dog Men by Alana Noël Voth
Dog Men is a strange book. Alana Noël Voth has a prose style that reads like a cross between something you’d find in fanfiction or a teenager’s blog post: that is, it is utterly unliterary. Or perhaps anti-literary: the eponymous first story in the collection is of a genre that can only be described as “queer erotic werewolf thriller,” operating with such obvious clichés that at first I thought it was supposed to be ironic, or parody:
The girls heard a growl then spun around, pressing themselves together, holding hands. First, they saw a set of glowing yellow eyes then the silhouette of a man before his face emerged in the sparse light, a face covered by a thick layer of hair. The dog man curled his lips back revealing teeth long and sharp as a dog’s. He lifted a pair of hair-covered hands then scratched the air with long, black nails. This was no pot-induced hallucination. Tally screamed.
But take the seven stories in Dog Men as a sum total and Voth’s agenda suddenly seems to embrace the oddness, the stilted language, the awkward dialogue. “[It] doesn’t require a Master’s-level vocabulary,” Donna Lee Miele puts it for the Atticus Review. And there is something deserved in that, something refreshingly anti-intellectual: if this is what un-literary literature looks like, then I for one am willing to bite.
Dog Men takes its name from one of the stories in the collection, but “men are dogs,” could have worked as a title, too. Masculinity is aligned with abuse — yet men are also the victims of fierce unrequited attraction. Voth situates her stories in a violent world that seems devoid of love; what love there is, anyway, is deeply damaged. In “Boxy Temples,” Kylie gives birth to the world’s most beautiful boy only to be scorned by him for a life of prostitution; in “My Name is Brighton,” Paul makes the mistake of raping a girl who will later be transformed into a zombie; and in “Reservoir Bitch,” Spike stubbornly assumes a male identity only to unravel in the arms of his friend, Rand.
Voth — whose work has been anthologized in some number of gay erotica collections — tends to take a queer slant when shaping her characters, although oftentimes their sexual orientations bring them unhappiness and abuse. Most problematically, Spike in “Reservoir Bitch” is apparently identifying as a man because of sexual abuse and it is through straight-boy Rand’s love that he can finally surrender to being a woman again. In other stories, the cruelty is subtler, such as in “Benediction,” where Brent falls in love with his friend Ron, although Brent knows Ron thinks of girls when he touches him:
Ron held out a lighter, a little unsteady, the flame flickering, and we met eyes over the fire. I wanted to say, “I love you, man.” I love you. But I inhaled the smoke instead, and the butt of my cigarette gave way to ember, and I coughed. Ron looked away, lighting his own cigarette before lifting his eyes to the willow as he leaned against the fence, hair falling into his eyes. With one hand, I touched his elbow. He crossed his arms over his chest and didn’t say anything and didn’t look at me either.
Heterosexual relationships don’t fare much better; no matter who you are, then, or whom you like, Voth believes love hurts like hell. In “Marcelle,” Ronan enters into a humiliating S&M relationship with the girl of his dreams while fleeing the mocking ghost of his brother:
“Think about it,” she said. “Who’s stronger? The sadist or the masochist?”
I wanted her to be stronger. That was obvious.
Dog Men culminates with “Genuflection,” a wild and radiant love story that burns with the friction of obsession and rejection. It is the standout piece in the collection — perhaps in part because it is the most traditionally “literary.” Here Voth seems most aware and in control of her language, the most willing to work with image and metaphor and purpose:
Anyone living on East Colfax knows the sun never burns out here. Even when the sun goes down, we got the heat inside us. The gringos explain our heat as hostility. Maybe they think right — in some cases — but building a baseball field and coffee shop chains deeper into the east, that’s just like gringos to think a baseball field covers brown with green. I don’t hate gringos; I’m half gringo myself even if I don’t look it. Mom was gringa, silkworm-white; she was also a traitor.
Dog Men, then, might undo itself: if the collection has taken a stance as being stridently anti-literary, while its best story is recognizably working within the tradition of the higher literary short story, then what does this mean for Voth’s agenda? No matter: whatever it is, Dog Men is a curious beast, and a bold collection to find in publication. Its publisher, Tiny Hardcore, has gambled with Voth’s blog-like ordinariness — and perhaps she’s pulled it off.
Visit Tiny Hardcore Press’s website to order the book.