RIVER DOGS by Robert Olmstead


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Hard-boiled stories about the working class in rural New England that consist about half of standard tropes in the current let's-be-laconic genre and about half of a native energy that pulls them on. The details of construction work and farming are rendered with a satisfying and knowledgeable expertise in stories that often move along somewhat more banally in their psychology. The loosely shaped "The Mason" ends up more or less gratuitously with a man bedding his niece, and in "Bruno and Rachel," set on an expertly rendered dairy farm, a young wife runs away but finally rand equally inexplicably) returns. Animal sex and human sex are commonly made symbolically parallel, as in "A Pair of Bulls," in which a farmer's wife goes off to a near-certain dalliance with another man while the farmer stays home and applies medicine to an ailing, recently castrated steer. There are stories of drunkenness and hunting, as in "The Boon" (a boy is accidentally shot during deer hunting), and of loggers and isolation, as in "Cody's Story" (two loggers, wintering in a trailer in the wilderness, begin to fear for their mental stability and end up in bed together). Sometimes the stories are content with familiar imagery of doubt, anxiety, and loss (in the title story, two boys drown a litter of puppies in "the black water of the river on its way to the ocean"); and at other times merely with toughened old country yarns (a wily cattle trader, in "A Good Cow," makes a sick cow look frisky before a sale by putting five pounds of ice up her rectum). "In This Life" chronicles the life of an older brother whose face becomes scarred by burns, whose girlfriend drowns, and whose life spirals downward into a Snopes-of-New-England squalor and hopelessness, but with symbols and dialogue redolent of Beattie/Carver. In all, some genuine energies (and occasional beauties) pushing their way through much that's standard.
Pub Date: April 3rd, 1987
ISBN: 0805051201
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Vintage/Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1987


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