THE DOG by Jack Livings
Kirkus Star


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A debut collection of stories by an American author about post-Mao China provides fresh perspective through its understated, straightforward prose.

These stories are sneaky, almost subliminal, in their ambitions and connections. Almost all the protagonists and other characters are Chinese or at least indigenous to the region, with the lone exception of Claire, an American student in “The Pocketbook,” who “savored the taste of the unsettled air between the two arenas of existence.” For the reader and perhaps the author, these stories also seem to exist between two arenas, not typically American nor authentically Chinese, but in a realm of possibility that invites similar savoring. Claire discovers that the streets outside her cloistered college aren’t as safe as she might have thought, as a 10-year-old expert robs her (and then himself falls victim to social Darwinism as he loses his spoils to older and tougher thugs), while Claire becomes caught in a protest that she barely understands. Because the author writes so simply, and so well, the human complexities of these stories and the connections among them reveal themselves subtly rather than with great drama. None of the stories are explicitly political, though “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” the longest tale, illuminates what it means to live within a value system likely very different from the reader’s. With the death of Chairman Mao, the commission for his crystal coffin represents a great honor but also an impossible challenge, as it is decreed that a project that should take more than three years must be completed in 10 months. “When completion of a task requires conditions that do not exist, create proper conditions!” orders the official from “[t]he Party [that] outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic.” Within all of these stories, the human element provides the common denominator.

Though Livings works as a journalist, his fiction shows a whole lot more than moonlighting potential.

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-374-17853-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2014


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