‘Dog Heaven’ by Stephanie Vaughn

“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again,” is another of my favourite opening lines, and maybe the best answer to that pesky question of narrative imperative i.e. Why is this story being told now? What follows is the narrator’s childhood memories—framed as a dead dog’s dream—of the last few months her family spent living on an army base in Fort Niagara in the before moving to another post in Oklahoma. As army brats, the narrator and her best friend Sparky are outcasts amongst the “civilian children” at school. It’s the 1980s, and their attempts to fit in by learning how to skate, wearing the right hats and gloves, and running for student government, are shadowed by the threat of nuclear war and their teacher’s pointed reminder that “in the whole history of the human species only one country had ever used the worst weapon ever invented.”

It’s Duke, that beloved long-dead dog, who gives her childhood a sense of innocence, earning a permanent place in the family mythology for his spectacular feats, including running fourteen miles through an ice storm to return home. I love a dog story, and one the things that makes Duke an unforgettable dog character is his voice, his barks translated by Vaughn into gleeful, urgent expressionist: “My name is Duke! My name is Duke! I’m your dog! I’m your dog!” People who love this story as much as I do often marvel at the fact that Vaughn has not published another book since her collection Sweet Talk in 1990. But I think of ‘Dog-Heaven’ and its note-perfect ending, and wonder if she simply said everything she wanted to say.

First published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1989 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Sweet Talk, Other Press, 2012

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