Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink review: a gracefully written, moving debut

Sara Baume praises a fine-spun illustration of what the American dream has amounted to, peopled by men up to old-fashioned tricks, stalked by new-fashioned disillusionment

Most of Callan Wink’s characters are sons, fathers or grandfathers. In old-fashioned form, they hunt or fish or farm, or cheat on their wives

Most of Callan Wink’s characters are sons, fathers or grandfathers. In old-fashioned form, they hunt or fish or farm, or cheat on their wives

Wed, Feb 17, 2016, 07:00

   
 

Book Title:
Dog Run Moon

ISBN-13:
978-1847088147

Author:
Callan Wink

Publisher:
Granta

Guideline Price:
£12.99

The Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 was the most significant event of the Great Sioux War which took place between the United States army and an allied force of Lakota, Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne tribes. Today, it is more widely known as the clash in which George Armstrong Custer, Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, was slayed by the Indians.

One More Last Stand, the second story in Dog Run Moon, takes place around the weekend of the annual re-enactment in present day Montana. Perry has a PhD in “Custer studies”, as well as a pair of “elbow-length calfskin gloves” and a “drooping mustache”. Even though he travels west every year to play the leading role, his standpoint on history is ambiguous. “Did you know,” he tells two elderly lady spectators, “that when a reinforcement cavalry regiment finally arrived on the scene of the battle, they found Custer had received over thirty-two assorted stab wounds, arrow punctures, and rifle shots, was scalped, and had his penis and scrotum cut off and stuffed in his mouth?”

In Crow Country Moses, a father and son drive around Big Horn County in a rented Zephyr searching for the site of the battle. In 1967, it was designated the Custer Battlefield National Monument, and it wasn’t until 1991 that it was renamed, judiciously, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The father and son never manage to find it. Instead, they pass “a faded sign for Custer’s Last (Ice cream) Stand” and later on, they stop at a 7-Eleven on the edge of reservation land. “It was a dry reservation, and apparently this was the watering hole.” The son, who is narrating, watches the locals come and go, “…all of them wore dark-brimmed Stetsons and dark Wranglers tucked into dark leather boots…it was clear that the Indians had become cowboys or that the cowboys had all turned into Indians or that the Indians were all cowboys to begin with just nobody ever noticed. Well, maybe that wasn’t clear but what was clear was the fact that something wasn’t quite right.”

Things are seldom “quite right” in these stories. Their setting is a place where the moon is “a pulsing lunar heart lodged between the ribs of a giant skeleton”, where little kids must learn how to ski before they develop “a real fear of falling”, where exotic animals stalk the canyons: “Aoudads. Sitka deer. Feral hogs, New Zealand red deer. Elk. A few different kinds of antelope.”

Much about Dog Run Moon can be understood from the first paragraph of the story, Off the Track, perhaps even just its first line: “The day before Terry had to report to Deer Lodge to start his sentence, he went fishing with his grandpa.” A few lines later, there is a radiant description: “…it was hot and everything was shades of green – the pad covered lake, the Russian olives and willows that crowded the bank, the flat, manicured carpet of his grandfather’s lawn…” It comes to an end with skilful economy: “Terry stared at his bobber and he was scared.”

Most of Wink’s characters are sons, fathers or grandfathers. In old-fashioned form, they hunt or fish or farm, or cheat on their wives. But they are also stalked by new-fashioned disillusionment. The boy in Breatharians clubs cats to death in his father’s barn, cutting off their tails for trophies. The man in Exotics leaves his job as a teacher in a “yuppie one-room schoolhouse” to work as a ranch hand in Echo Canyon. “…We gotta go and never stop going till we get there…” Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty hollered in On the Road. In Dog Run Moon, this masculine energy is drained by responsibility, by rumination. Only the protagonist of the title story summons the frustrated strength to run away – literally, aimlessly.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was a momentous victory for the Indians, but the celebration lasted only a day. The morning after the battle, the newspapers reported it as a massacre, and American soldiers aggressively retaliated against the tribes of the Black Hills. Their mineral-rich territory was gradually ceded to the government, the Indians forced to surrender their weapons and settle on reservations.

Close to the end of Crow County Moses, after the narrator’s father has died, he goes to clean the old man’s house out. In a desk drawer he finds “warranty statements for every appliance in the house dating back to the first microwave he and my mother ever purchased in 1979…” and in another, a sheaf of brochures: “BIG SKY COUNTRY REAL ESTATE: OWN A PIECE OF THE LAST BEST PLACE. REAL WEST: EXPERIENCE THE TRADITION.” It’s a sharp note in a gracefully written, moving debut – a fine-spun illustration of what the American dream has amounted to.

Sara Baume is the author of Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither