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Red Dog, Red Dog

By Patrick Lane

Review By Mark Diotte

October 29, 2013

BC Studies no. 163 Autumn 2009  | p. 138-9

Due to the strong tourism and leisure economy of British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has become primarily associated with orchards, beaches, and, most recently, award-winning vineyards – in short, the Okanagan Valley is synonymous with the idyllic countryside. Yet, while Patrick Lane’s debut novel Red Dog, Red Dog is set in the Okanagan Valley, it subverts any notion of the romanticized countryside typically associated with peace, purity, family values, stability, and healing. Instead, Red Dog, Red Dog combines elements of the supernatural with elements of reality in an exploration of the dark side of human behaviour and psychology. Indeed, Lane’s novel has echoes of the violence, cruelty, and gloom of the American South described by William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy,  of the British Columbia described by Sheila Watson in The Double Hook, and, to a lesser extent, of the supernatural elements described by Gail Anderson-Dargatz in Turtle Valley.

In combination with writers such as Watson and Anderson-Dargatz, Lane is contributing to what I would suggest is the beginning of a West Coast gothic tradition in Canada. Centred around the Stark family, the novel takes place over a one-week time period. Interspersed in the narrative are “stories arcing back in time to the 1920s and ‘30s on the prairies” and to the “1880s West” (book jacket). Narrated by the deceased infant Alice Stark, Red Dog, Red Dog immediately introduces an element of the uncanny into the narrative. Traditional gothic architecture is replaced with bleak descriptions of a “valley leading nowhere” set against equally desolate “rocky outcrops with their swales of rotted snow” (14-15), while the innocent heroine is replaced by an abusive mother who spends the majority of her time behind the locked door of her bedroom at the end of the hall. The traditional gothic atmosphere of gloom, foreboding, and horror, however, remains intact in Lane’s novel through a narrative of continually shocking events that include buried secrets, dog fighting, rape, incest, murder, and child abuse.

Equally resistant to the cliché of the romanticized countryside are the characters who populate Lane’s novel. Elmer Stark, the father figure of the novel, is an alcoholic, quick-tempered and violent; the eldest brother, drug-addicted Eddy, is also violent and is filled with “something dead” after he comes back from Boyco, a correctional school for boys (18); Tom, arguably the most sympathetic character, is “a boy gone early to old” (45); Lillian is the cruel, neglectful, and incestuous mother figure. All characters in the novel are unstable, damaged through different combinations of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, and it is the process of revealing these multiple layers of abuse and secrecy that stands out in Lane’s novel. Like Eddy, the characters in Red Dog, Red Dog all have “something dead” or psychologically missing; they are desperate and are searching for that which will reconcile their lives to their expectations of life. It is primarily the failure of this attempt at reconciliation that leads to desolation, rage, and violence. While virtually all characters in the novel are monstrous, they cannot be said to be evil; rather, they are examples of a failed humanity. Red Dog, Red Dog, above all, is a novel that explores the bonds and loyalties needed to survive while it highlights the pressures that combine to create these damaged characters.

Like other poets who make the decision to write fiction, Lane is open to the criticism that his language is too poetic or laboured. In Red Dog, Red Dog, I don’t find this to be the case. Instead, so-called called poetic or descriptive passages are used to accentuate the harsh,  bleak atmosphere of both the physical and psychological landscape of the novel. Lane’s debut novel does much to illuminate the BC literary landscape and makes a substantial contribution to literature in Canada.

BC Studies, no. 163, Autumn 2009.