If you want to get American fiction writers of a certain age talking, mention this story, which begins, “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.” It’s about some army brats at Fort Niagara in Upstate New York, but it’s about life and death and failing to fit in. It has one of the most beautiful ending of any story I know, and one of the best dog characters in all of literature. Like many stories on this list I read it in those days in which I examined every story as though it were a writing manual. I was stymied every time. How did they do it? Eventually I realized that if I could figure that out, the story was no good. ‘Dog Heaven’ is so lovely a story – why hasn’t Vaughn published any more books since Sweet Talk in 1990? – that I don’t want to describe it. I want, instead, to sneak into your house and read it to you, standing a little too closely, so you can feel my hot breath in your ear.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1989, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Sweet Talk, Random House, 1990
“When I was twelve years old,” the narrator, Gemma, begins, “my father was tall and awesome.” But her father ends up far from his vigorous younger self — reclusive, depressed, an alcoholic drinking himself to death — and her story revolves around her fondest memories of the man at the most difficult time in his life, essentially representing her efforts to breathe some life back into a soul misrepresented by those who survived him. “In the eulogy” at his funeral, she says, “he was remembered for having survived the first wave of the invasion of Normandy.” Among the funeral attendees, however, he was instead admired “for having been the proprietor of a chain of excellent hardware stores.” Gemma tries to find words to reanimate the man who she knew as someone between those two extreme versions of himself — between the dashing wartime hero and the buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era shopkeeper — and she takes her lead from the words her father gave her when she was a child. The clue is in the title; the meaning of the words is a bond between parent and child and, through the child’s recollections in adulthood, between a man misunderstood by the world and the man he really was.
from Sweet Talk, Random House 1990; listen to it read aloud by Tea Obreht here