Published by word west, Alice Kaltman’s Dawg Towne opens with the enigmatic line: “You wouldn’t know me now, if you knew me then.”
In the context of the opening passage, this is the eponymous town introducing itself to the reader. A comment on how much this settlement has changed since the arrival of its humans. After its vegetation has been harvested and its land built upon. Not that the town seems to mind too much. It is instead wrapped by curiosity for its human infestation – particularly about their relationship with dogs. But once the story starts and we get to know the inhabitants of this town called Towne, it becomes clear that this innocent opening statement has much more to say.
Once the town has introduced itself, the bulk of the storytelling is split between Dawg Towne’s six narrators. Nell, a onetime child prodigy now eerie living ghost of the town; Abe, a new father and struggling novelist; David, a young boy with a penchant for thievery and women’s clothing; Paddy, a widower and owner operator of a Gas n’ Go; Lucinda, a divorcee and out of work interior designer; and Bradley Cole, a television actor whose sex and drug rehabilitation has taken the form of his membership to a cult dedicated to beauteousness.
To begin with, these character’s stories have little overlap. Bradley Cole’s manager describes Towne to him as being “[l]ike a time warp. Everyone wants to know everyone else’s business, but they get the dirt and go back to their safe little houses like turtles into their shell.” And this is the relationship the characters have with each other. They bump into each other, making cameos in each other’s chapters, before falling back into their own personal dramas and obsessions. This is most immediately seen with Paddy, whose grief for his deceased wife Mariah makes him nearly blind to the emotional panic of those around. When new father Abe loses his baby in the Gas n’ Go, Paddy barely notices. But they all have more in common than they think, and as each of the narrator’s pet dogs start to go missing, they are drawn into the clutched community Towne represents (and which so differentiates it from the nearby City). Chronicled over a course of a year, each of the characters are in a stage of transition.
The joy of this book, however, is in its storytelling. Kaltman’s novel is innovative and charming, but never falls into whimsy. I especially enjoyed the section marked as simply ‘Conversations’, where we are allowed to bask in the joy of hearing these differing characters just talk and it speaks to the larger ability of the author’s work as a whole. The writing is fun but is never without texture. Take Kaltman’s description of Abe’s son Milo, for instance: “Abe glanced at Milo, sitting on the living room rug in a pretzel position only a baby or advanced yogi could achieve without major next-day regret.” Technically witty but at the same time immediately familiar.
Even so, there are moments where the tone doesn’t quite land. In an early section of the novel, the widowed Paddy is propositioned by a woman in a manner that could quite easily be read as sexual assault, but which is played a little too off-handily. But this is rare blip, and the story is otherwise filled with heart. The story of David is a notable example. To begin with he is wracked with shame – deep into planning the heist of a dress from a charity shop, his life is defined by disguise. It is implied in Lucinda’s chapters that this is caused in part by his machismo riddled father. It is only David’s search for his missing dog Balthazar that leads him to transcend from hiding his desire for women’s clothing to finally allowing himself to be seen in front of his mother as someone more clearly himself.[i] The disappearance of dogs in the novel is carried out by Nell, who is able to slide through the other character’s stories undetected. Although most of the narrators have had interactions with her when she younger, they no longer recognize her. And as the book goes on, this idea of transformation is reflected in the novel’s form. Poems, songs, and screenplays start to appear and the rigid back of forth structure between the narrators becomes less stringent. It is not always clean, but it is always engaging.
Likewise, none of Towne’s resident receive neat and tidy endings. But still by the novel’s conclusion you feel like you have really grown to know these six narrators as they begin what will be the next stage of their transition. Despite how confused or misguided they might be at times, you nevertheless miss them whenever you put the book down.
As Towne will tell us itself: “I have a soft spot for the wrong-headed do-gooders who wreak havoc.”
Publisher: word west
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Reviewed by Mark Daniel Taylor
[i] David is clearly exploring his gender in the book, and even fantasises about changing his name to Natasha, but for the most part the narrator continues to use he/him pronouns, so I have done so here as well.