From its first line, Bark On draws you into the world of the most intense physical endurance sport: the triathlon, consisting of swimming, cycling, and long distance running. Athletes are prepared to do anything to build their endurance, so they attract the type of coach who can get them there. In Bark On, Benji Newton is such a coach for Erza, the novel’s protagonist. Benji is addicted to the pliant obedience of young men and women desperate to win. Bark On, Boyles’s debut novel, is a critique of what can happen when this pliant obedience meets unscrupulous control. Boyles, a nationally competitive triathlete in his youth, holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where he received the Weinberg and Schaeffer Fellowships for his fiction and is currently a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University.
In an author’s note, Boyles labels the novel, written during the COVID-19 quarantine as “the intersection between superstition, trauma and compulsion.” Bark On tells the story of twenty-five-year-old Ezra Fogerty who falls while participating in the Chapel Hill Ironman. On waking in the medical tent he meets Benji, an ex-trainer with a shady past. Troubled by his performance and his fall which has resulted in a humiliating photograph, Ezra is elated when Benji offers to become his coach.
Benji applies strange training methods to get him fit, which includes sending away Ezra’s Ma, taking over his home, his computer and cellular phone, and bringing in Casper Swayze, a pint-sized 18-year-old, to “cocoon.”
This literary novel, employing the method of writing through the body described by John Lee as using the “grammar of the gut, the syntax of the sinews [and] the language of the legs,” analyses the triathlon in all its facets: the effects on the body as well as the mind. With clinical precision, Boyles describes the anatomical changes in the body when pushed into extreme exertion until the mind shuts down. For some it is an escape from reality. Benji frequently admonishes his two charges to “keep [their] brain in [their] helmet” in order to reach the stage of “zenning” where an athlete can overcome body pain to reach peak performance.
The bleak setting of the novel is a futuristic vision of Kure, a beach town in North Carolina where erosion of the coastline has become a big problem, demonstrated by images of houses falling into the sea. Boyles’s Kure features a closed boardwalk and shuttered hotels, the result of bromine factories poisoning the environment. Coyotes have invaded to such an extent that Casper labels Kure a “flooded varm-bed of marsh.”
The novel has an odd-ball cast of characters: Benji, who sucks his hair believing it has magical qualities; Unc, who immerses himself into a dustbin filled with rain water to meditate; Ma, who binges and then trains hard; Doro, who walks on his hands; and Casper, a half-starved waif, who demonstrates a dog-like devotion to Benji. A protégé of Unc, a ruthless megalomaniac, Benji had his Achilles tendons cut but still imposes Unc’s brutal training methods on Ezra and Casper, calling them “tootsies.” Perhaps the most engaging character is Casper, whose snarky voice and lack of self-pity is admirable, and who has the propensity to make up words. He says: “I’d never known kin. I had to make myself, taking in others bursting,” the latter referring to being sexually abused while homeless. Ezra thinks Casper can’t read but Casper’s interiority has a mixture of talk about atoms, plus-minus, missing science class, and glassblowing, suffused by a home-grown wisdom and culture, showing an education which stretches beyond reading.
Employing a dark humor, Boyles references The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an ancient book which teaches a corpse on how to prepare for the afterlife. After death, an intermediate space—a bardo—follows, where the spirit dwells before it can be assigned to a new body. It seems that Boyles is suggesting that this bardo is another way to reach “zenning,” which can also be reached via drugs or meditation. In telling his tale Boyles utilizes different types of narration, some with better results than others: Ezra in third person, Casper in first person, Benji in second person and Ma who has first as well as second person narration, which didn’t land quite perfectly.
There are so many layers in this novel. The juxtaposition of Buddhism with Jewish ideas garnered from Ma’s Aunt Opal, the descriptions of the dying town, the encroaching coyotes indigenous to North America, the Shadefoot myth an “old hillbilly haint,” the Everywhen which Casper describes as when“[e]very person who’s gone into you, crams back in one sudden, ancestors bundle-stuck in a cocoon of now through history.” Benji who hums like the Nepalese throat singers, references to the Tulpa, an emotion so big that it attains a “corporeal manifestation” and the repetition of the word egregious. In some of his prize-winning short fiction published in the Wrath-bearing Tree, The Masters Review, and the Black Dandy, among others, Boyles returns to the same themes of poverty and dispossession such as being marginalized, living in a trailer, and hustling to make a living.
Bark On is not a book to rush through at one sitting but to savour slowly. I’m looking forward to reading it again and again, sure that it will reveal more nuggets each time.
Publisher: Driftwood Press
Publication date: February 28, 2023
Reviewed by Cornelia Smith Fick