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Stories With a Charming Weirdness

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOGWALKER

By Arthur Bradford

Alfred A. Knopf

$20, 160 pages

*

In the first of the 12 stories in Arthur Bradford’s debut collection, the narrator, who has a three-legged dog, meets a woman whose dog has given birth to a litter of deformed puppies. “They crawled about on mere nubs instead of legs,” he reports. “Several were missing limbs altogether. Three of them were attached at the sides--three-way Siamese twins. One of them had no eyes. Where the sockets should have been there was just skin, flat and covered with fur.”

Bradford, who has won an O. Henry Award for short fiction, writes stories that resemble those puppies. They are missing things that we would expect stories to have. But they are warm and furry and seemingly unaware of what they are missing. They wiggle up to us and assume we’re going to love them.

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All 12 are told in the first person. The narrators are nameless young men who have little money, work at jobs on the dishwasher level and live in cheap apartments or rooming houses. They are tolerant of eccentricity--in humans and in animals--and the people they bump against, and sometimes hurt, are forgiving of them in turn.

In “South for the Winter,” the narrator steals a blind man’s car. We know he’s aware that this is a bad thing to do--not because he says so, but because in a very short story he devotes a paragraph to admiring how the blind man “kept his money organized in a system of folds on the corner of each bill. He said that in a pinch he could also tell how much money he was holding by feeling the shape of the ink on the paper.” The narrator runs out of gas and is arrested. The blind man bails him out.

In “Chainsaw Apple,” the narrator practices using a chain saw to carve a buddy’s initials on an apple the buddy holds in his mouth. The first time they perform this act in public, however, a stranger, a woman, volunteers to hold the apple. The chain snaps and injures her face. In a story by somebody else, this might lead to a lawsuit or a jail term, but in Bradford’s world it’s the prelude to romance.

Illogical behavior is the norm even in the more realistic stories in “Dogwalker,” and in some cases things get downright weird. In “Dogs,” the narrator has sex with a dog and produces offspring of both species. In “Roslyn’s Dog,” a fairy tale of the prince-and-frog variety, the narrator is bitten by a neighbor’s dog, then kisses her. She turns into a woman. He grows hairy and learns to live on “dry kibble and water.”

There’s a charm to the weirdness, an innocence that makes Bradford’s doofuses appealing. It’s nice, for a change, to see violence disarmed, pain anesthetized, and the alien rendered cuddly. But after a while, after the 10-pound giant-slug story and the pregnant-python story and the story about the man whose legs are cut off by a train (he’s in shock and talks to the narrator calmly), we start to think about what’s missing.

Not talent, surely. And not “seriousness” of a kind that would ban three-legged dogs from Bradford’s’ fiction henceforth. But what is missing here is a willingness to go beyond the cute, the odd and the mildly funny--to challenge these characters’ zoned-out acceptance with real conflict. We can’t care about them unless they can feel pain, or at least the possibility of it.

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