Sit, Stay, and Play

  • Richard Teleky
    The Exile Book of Canadian Dog Stories. Exile Editions
  • Priscila Uppal
    The Exile Book of Canadian Sports Stories. Exile Editions
Reviewed by Owen Percy

Richard Teleky’s thorough and surprising introduction to The Exile Book of Canadian Dog Stories provides an excellent contextualization for the anthology’s very existence in the first place. Teleky’s historical acumen pits Argos as the first dog-of-significance in Western literature (a notion reconfirmed by Stan Dragland’s story “Penelope’s Dog” more than 200 pages later), and points to the appearance of CanLit dogs in texts as early and as canonical as Radisson’s journals and Moodie’s Roughing It In the Bush. This collection, it quickly becomes apparent, wrestles with and exults in the uncertainties and mutabilities that might be said to characterize CanLit as a field in the first place; identity/belonging, place/space, wilderness/nature, etc. So what is a Canadian dog story, then? “Simply put,” Teleky insists, “it’s any story by a Canadian about the rich and complex and mysterious bond between dogs and humans.” Note the emphasis on the complex and the mysterious.

Teleky takes pains to resist the pull of the romantic or the nostalgic in his selections. There are, of course, several predictably loyal and protective Lassie-like dogs like the titular Bingo in Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Bingo, The Story of My Dog” and Marie-Claire Blais’ “Homage to Scheila,” but Charles G.D. Roberts’ gothic horror “The Stone Dog” which opens the anthology puts to rest any lingering assumptions that this collection might be an exercise in anthropomorphism or romanticism designed for the “Gift Ideas” rack at your local bookstore. For every reliable four-legged companion in Dog Stories, there seems to exist an uncanny doppeldog that proves, Teleky himself notes, “as far removed from sentimental representation as anyone could imagine.” And it is, to be clear, not necessarily the dogs in these stories that evoke eeriness, but the craftiness of authors like Leon Rooke in “Painting the Dog” or Claire Dé, whose title, “A Devouring Love,” proves throughout the story to be referential beyond simply the metaphorical.

The twenty-eight stories here from some of CanLit’s most recognizable figures (Leacock! Montgomery! Gallant! MacLeod! Coady!) are not really about dogs, of course. Or at least they are not singly about dogs. They assume, instead, that our pets are “the background of our lives” in that they often become the markers of how we understand (and operate in) the world. Teleky makes the case for this anthology very simply, then: “In a very basic way, we reveal ourselves in the regard we have for our dogs, and good writers know this and show it.” And the good writers here prove his point in kind. Excellent stories by P.K. Page (“Unless the Eye Catch Fire”), Jane Rule (“Dulce”), and Timothy Taylor (“Smoke’s Fortune”), become eloquent musings on ecology, sexuality, and violence respectively, and come across as the strongest of a strong bunch of Canadian canine chronicles.

In addition to sharing certain authors, The Exile Book of Canadian Sports Stories also shares Dog Stories’ penchant for both the markedly literary and the liberal strictures of its focus as a themed anthology. Priscila Uppal’s introduction also hearkens back to ancient Greece for the building blocks of its genre, citing Ronald J. Meyer’s assertion that The Iliad’s funeral games qualify Homer as the world’s first sports writer. Sport, like Teleky’s pups, is a literal referent in these texts, but “it is also metaphor, paradigm, a way to experience some of the harsher realities of the world, a place to escape to, an arena from which endless lessons can be learned”; it is, then, some might argue, the very stuff of literature itself. Uppal opens the collection with “The Sociology of Love” by the criminally-underappreciated Clark Blaise—a narrative that is about a dozen different things before (if?) it is about tennis at all—and never looks back.

Scholars of CanLit will cover much familiar ground in these twenty-six stories. In addition to Moodie’s “Brian the Still-Hunter,” we get the Kinsella, Bowering, and Richler baseball stories (“Diehard,” “October 1, 1961,” and “Playing Ball on Hampstead Heath” respectively), the Leacock fishing story (“The Old, Old Story of How Five Men Went Fishing”) and the Roch Carrier hockey story (“The Hockey Sweater” sans illustrations). But thanks to Uppal’s assiduous editorial hand we also get some surprising gems like Dionne Brand’s “I Used to Like the Dallas Cowboys,” Marguerite Pigeon’s extreme-sport tale “Endurance,” and Katherine Govier’s “Eternal Snow” about a ski-gondola ride gone wrong. Other highlights include Brian Fawcett’s “My Career With the Leafs,” wherein a poet with weak ankles and no experience makes the roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Craig Davidson’s “The Rifleman” which takes the “soccer mom” model to a pathetic extreme in a “basketball dad.” As with any anthology, there are some surprising omissions (Andrew Hood, Paul Quarrington, David Adams Richards—most of whom Uppal accounts for in her introduction), but none are glaring given that the anthology does not aspire to any degree of comprehensiveness.

As in Teleky’s anthology, most of the short stories stand up as well-wrought literary texts indifferent to their at-times-tenuous relationships to the thematic worlds by which they are apparently organized. These collections are, of course, highly marketable gifts for bookish canine-ites and armchair quarterbacks, but they will also have much potential weight to throw around on current and future syllabi (CanLit, ecocriticism, sport and literature, etc.) as Canadian literature continues to re-articulate and re-organize itself in new ways.

This review “Sit, Stay, and Play” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 182-183.

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