Wild Dogs is the ultimate stealth (lesbian) novel. If introducing this novel to a wider lesbian readership was the only thing I accomplished in two and a half years of publishing this rag, it would be worth it.
Let’s start with the PR — while I sympathize with the publicists’ dilemma (there’s almost nothing you can say about this rich novel without giving something away), the catalog and jacket copy make the book sound like it’s about people so sad and lonely that even their dogs won’t speak to them. I’ve spent forty years searching out good lesbian reading and I just couldn’t get past the promo until Emma Donoghue wrote, in TLE’s “Best Books of 2005” issue, “Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs — about a group of people whose dogs have run off to the woods — is a ravishingly written novel about the contrary pulls of danger and home.” I bit the bullet, ordered a copy and dove in.
Donoghue is right: This is one of those rare books you haven’t read before. Luckily I read it just in time to insist that it be added to the Lammy’s Lesbian Fiction shortlist. (Winner to be announced May 18.) So, hopefully, it will yet land in the lesbian reading community.
Humphreys explores the edge between when we think we’re wild young things cherishing freedom and independence and that awkward moment when the attraction of the domesticated life begins to frighten, or worse, when we discover we’ve already failed at settling in. She looks at how people (mostly women, but some others as well) build relationships in the context of the everyday, seemingly banal, damage all too commonly inflicted in our cultures. In the end she redefines success living in that context. That alone would make this a breakthrough novel.
But I also love the way Humphreys plays with the gender of the beloved throughout the initial sections of the book – she certainly kept me on edge for those first 50 pages. Everyone will read this section differently, depending on their own assumptions and experiences, which makes this a perfect reading group book. The relief, when it comes, is a throwaway line from the least expected quarter. Others have used this device before (Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, and June Arnold come to mind), but here it’s an aspect that leads the reader deeper into the book, not the central conceit. Humphreys holds the tension just long enough to keep it interesting.
But more fun, even than that, is her wickedly spare prose. A few seemingly backhanded sentences describe childhoods that others have spent entire novels documenting. A short riff, early in the book, on jobs and boyfriends past and on the confines and traps of each is encyclopedic in its insight. I keep expecting to come across it as a broadside somewhere.
Don’t look here for a simplistic, romantic resolution. Humphreys’ exploration of loss and betrayal and love is much more complex; her characters dream in conflicting visions, and a single, shared future won’t suffice. That’s a story that is rarely told, rarely told well, and when it is, the characters are much too rarely women. In Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs we get all three. Paper: June 5, $13.95, Norton, 0393328422; cloth $22.95, Norton, 0393060152.