“Dogs Go Wolf”, by Lauren Groff
Some Thoughts on “Dogs Go Wolf”, a short story by Lauren Groff (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/28/dogs-go-wolf/amp).
To begin with, the title telegraphs one of the themes of the story: man and beast will instinctively revert to their roots when challenged to survive.
As for the writing, I like the first sentence: “The storm came and erased the quiet”. It sets the mood. And the next sentence, “Well, the older sister thought, an island is never really quiet” alerts the reader to the fact that this seven-year-old has the thoughts and comprehension of a much older child. However, the awkward time jumps irritate, they seem forced and distracting; they take away from, rather than add to, the pace of story. The historic timeline is blurred and it is difficult to calculate how long the girls are on the island.
Is the island setting important? It is a small island, accessible by private boat from Ft. Lauderdale. It is essentially deserted: a fishing camp with two cabins; a dock; a beach, and a pond in the middle (a clue to the small size of the island). The cottages provide shelter, while the pond is important as Smokey Joe takes time to walk the sisters to the fresh water supply, hinting at his premeditated decision to strand them there. The beach, of course, is the lure for the couple who rescue the girls.
The main characters are two girls, four and seven, who are unnamed. They are “pretty little things”. “Their faces exactly like their mother’s.” “Hoochies-in-waiting, their mother joked.” [Their mother is described as “a good mother”. Hoochie means a woman who has many casual sexual partners; one who dresses and/or comports herself in a seductive way. Very few “good” mothers wish this for their daughters.] The girls have different fathers: the older sister’s is not mentioned; little sister’s father “may” have been a man they lived with in Brookline. They are physically different; younger sister has braids and hair that fluffs out into “a beautiful dark cloud”; she “didn’t need to go into the sun to be tanned”. “The older sister burned to blisters all the time.”
I was struck by the controlled emotionalism of the girls. The little sister sleeps through the storm while the older girl holds her and knows “that only her ferocious attention would keep them safe”. The storm attacks the cabin and the noise is intense. Even children conditioned to the hectic life these girls have experienced should be terrified when left alone inside a cabin that is rocking on its stilts, surrounded by the sounds of roaring waves, the dock grinding against the shore, wind blowing through cracked windows and the lashing of surrounding palms. They also don’t seem to be worried or afraid when their mother doesn’t return, even when “the hours clicked by and she didn’t come back at all”… and “the girls had to sleep on the floor in Melanie and Smokey Joe’s cabin”. Nor are they upset when Melanie and Smokey Joe leave in a rush (presumably after he hears a storm warning on the CB). Later, they are emotionally immune to their observation of the snake being “eaten” by the air conditioner fan, a gross depiction.
Incidents where they do exhibit emotion include the time when little sister vanishes and the older sister’s “heart dropped out of her body”. She thinks her sister’s deliberate prank is mean, while the younger sister shrugs it off. The older sister cries “with rage” when the little sister is frightened by the white flash in the woods and drops her bucket, spilling half the water (this reaction contrasts significantly with the lack of anger or distress displayed when the mother first, then Smokey Joe and Melanie, leave them alone on a deserted island). Add in the tale of wild monkeys Smokey Joe tells that spooks the little sister. As for the dreaded monkeys, they never see one until the bananas have ripened and a small monkey eats them. Their reaction to the proximity of the monkey and the loss of a viable food source is not fear, anger or disappointment, only the older sister’s acknowledgement that a monkey actually exists.
Their survival skills are surprising. The seven-year-old sister knows about the generator and its lack of fuel; she knows they need water, that they must get it from the pond and that it must be boiled. They change out of dirty clothes and put on Smokey Joe’s clean shirt. “They catch three crabs with their hands and boil them”. The older sister thinks of launching the blue boat but recognized that they might float out to sea.
And now for the men: It is implied that the mother works in an environment that caters to men. She “would come home very late, jangling” (a very interesting word: jangling, meaning pumped up from the night’s activity? On drugs? Or money in her pocket, such as coins? Or all the above?) “She’d smell of vodka and smoke and money….” She’d “put music on too loud and they’d all dance”. The mother “liked men. Men were easy. You knew where you were with men”.
However, the mother’s relationships with men appear to be short-lived. Both girls have reason to be suspicious of men: identity of little sister’s father is hinted at, but not confirmed, and he does not seem to be in the picture when little sister arrives in her pink and blue blanket. Ernesto, the man who brings them to the island, spirits their mother away (it is obvious she doesn’t know she will not return as she leaves her clothes, dopp kit and cosmetics in the cabin). Smokey Joe unceremoniously abandons them. And the older sister doesn’t even take time to look at the “bad man” before she whisks little sister into the woods (is she heeding Melanie’s warning, “don’t you go with no man”?). His description, “stocky, with jeans and a sweaty T-shirt, a thick gold chain around his neck”, leads the reader to cheer her decision to run even though he is a human with a boat and could be there to rescue them. His behavior in the cabins reinforces older sister’s decision to restrain little sister’s impulse to reveal herself when he tempts them with “We [Ernesto, Smokey Joe, Melanie and the bad man?] got your mama with us. Don’t you want to see your mama? We’ll make you a big old feast and you can sit in her lap and eat it all up. Bet you’re hungry.” For normal children who are alone on a deserted island with no food, sanitation, clean clothes, that appeal would be hard to resist.
Groff’s depictions of women are bizarre: Their mother is “so beautiful she just glinted off light.” However, “her face was made up with blue eyeshadow and lashes so thick and long that it was a wonder she could see. She left red kisses on their cheeks.” Her lifestyle is suspect as she works with women she refers to as skanks, and her eyes “were hot when she came home from work, wanting to dance, smoke, sing”. On the island, when the adults were talking all night (perhaps about an illegal venture: “Ernesto’s going to make us all rich”), she “seemed wild on the inside, flushed on the outside”. The girls appear to unconditionally accept their mother for who she is: a beautiful, carefree woman who lives life on the edge, one day at a time, and in spite of her irresponsible nature, she watches the girls “anxiously from the corner of her eye”. She doesn’t like the feminine sex and would “talk about the other women she worked with. Idiots, she called them. Skanks. She didn’t trust other women. They were all backstabbing bitches who’d rob you sooner than help you….Women were too complicated. You always had to guess. You couldn’t give them an inch or they’d ruin you, she said.”
Melanie’s appearance is described as “her shirts couldn’t hold in all her flesh” and “her breasts and belly [moved] in all kinds of directions under her shirt”. She shows some compassion as she feeds the girls, seems to question Smokey Joe’s decision to leave them and is “pale under her orangey tan” when she tells them to stay and be good. However, when the dog bites little sister, she just shrugs and says, “Told you.”
The older sister is receptive to showing herself to the people on the beach after she hears the song which her mother had sung along with the radio (as if, by association, her mother is conveying validation). In an attempt to make themselves attractive, the two girls emulate the mother’s style. They put on her short dresses, pour her perfume on their wrists and head, adorn their cheeks and lips with their mother’s lipstick (actually becoming “hootchies-in-waiting”). Her influence will remain as the older sister will fight to keep their last name: “it was the only thing they had of their mother”. However, she also keeps the gold cartridge of [the lipstick] long after the makeup inside was gone and only a sweet waxy smell of her mother remained.”
The future is revealed in one of the time jumps. The older girl remembers the days on the island when she and little sister were slowly starving to death and surviving as primitives in nature as “days of calm. She’d hold these beautiful soft days in her as the years slowly moved from terrible to bearable to better, and she would feel herself growing, sharpening.” The older sister wishes they’d stayed on the island “all those years ago; that they’d slowly vanished into their hunger until they turned into sunlight and dust”. The older girl will “learn the language of men and use it against them;” she will become a lawyer. Her little sister, so lovely, so fragile, [who] only ever wanted to be held”, meets “a man who first gave her love, then withdrew it until she believed the things he believed.” The little sister will marry the man and take his last name, thereby giving up her tie to the mother that the older sister had worked so hard to retain. Again, the matter of the timeline: did the older sister become a lawyer before the little sister married? Or did her marriage free the older sister to pursue her own life, like the cutting of the leash freed the dog?
This leads to the possible purpose of the dog in the story. The dog is male, a fluffy white dog, whose physical description conjures up the vision of a cute, friendly, huggable furball. Not so. We immediately learn that he had “crept close to the girls’ bed…but snapped at their hands, The animal was torn between his hatred of children and his hatred of the storm outside”. Melanie described him as a “mean, little sucker”. The dog returned, even after the food was gone, but wouldn’t let them near him until he was almost strangled by his leash. By then, he “was no longer white fluff but knots of yellow and brown string.” When the older sister cut his leash, the dog stumbled away. The girl knew he would stay in the forest, foraging on his own. “That dog was too mean to die.” His story of survival is parallel to that of the girls’ (even to the point where he would have perished without outside help). Is he also a metaphor for the men who passed through the lives of the girls?
There are some poetic passages: “The storm came and erased the quiet.” “…the night still in the windows, and sprinklers spitting in the courtyard.” “The older sister’s head was gentle with clouds. The sand of the bay smelled like almonds….” “…the fountain’s turquoise water and the red-dyed cedar mulch and the tree heavy with sweet oranges….” “…the girls’ bones didn’t want to get up. Lie still, the bones said. Their hearts made music in their ears.”