American Book Review
By Willam Giraldi
“Zero at the Bone”
The novel-in-stories is not always sheer folly: Mitch Wieland’s God’s Dogs, published by S.M.U. Press, comes as near as possible to accomplishing perfection with the devious form. Wieland, author of the bracing novel Willy Slater’s Lane, performs the magic trick that has eluded other writers: each story works both as an individual entity and as a propellant into the next narrative. Wieland thwarts the manufactured links that infect the integrity of the typical novel-in-stories. His hero’s stuttering evolution, organic and effortless, needs no contrivance. These tales of Western isolation, male muteness, and extreme physicality — tales of earth and blood but also of ghosts and gods — are crafted with a restraint and accuracy that matches early Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford (Ford himself said of Wieland’s novel-in-stories that it “pulls off impressively what seems, in practice, almost impossible to do well”). Our art has tended to over-romanticize the West with equal parts mystery and myth ever since Lewis and Clark heeded Jefferson’s call in 1803. A resident of Idaho, Wieland applies to his fiction an aptitude much too wise to traffic in the televised folklore of the West. Instead, his landscape of barren beauty — the wind and dust and hills and what they unleash within the people who live there — yowls to life as if for the first time.
Ferrell Swan, retired from teaching high school history and separated from the ex-wife he cannot quit, abides in Idaho’s badlands just beneath the Owyhee mountain range. His ex-wife, Rilla, his stepson, Levon, and his two cantankerous neighbors, Din Winters and Harrison Cole, waft in and out of his days, upsetting his seclusion and compelling him to reckon with the errors of his personality he’d rather not acknowledge: “He’s long sensed he is lost behind something huge, but he doesn’t want to know what it is.” Ferrell (feral) and his neighbors relish this nook of our homeland still untouched by the mad sheen of civilization — “eighty miles south-southeast of Boise, in the middle of not much else but the wide curving sky” — and therein lies the book’s central struggle: Rilla’s attempts to rope her beloved back into modernity, to convince him that humankind, for all our filth, is worth his appreciation.
Some women from the Midwest and West can make their East Coast counterparts look timid in comparison (think of the female characters in stories by Lee K. Abbott, Annie Proulx, and William Kittredge). Rilla brings to her dialogues with Ferrell a sharper mind and more capacious heart, a toughness formed from the lifelong accumulation of calluses. She harbors neither the idealism nor the misanthropy that keeps her ex tethered to the desert, and when she speaks, she speaks the truth: “You see, in their hearts and minds, men leave women first . . . We just break the physical connection. We basically finish what you’re too weak to finish yourselves. We end the misery for all concerned.” For all its male-centric themes, these stories bestow no compliments upon male stupidity, of which these characters have much. Rilla chides Ferrell for his reticence, for his refusal to admit that emotions must be not only reciprocated but verbalized for a marriage to endure: actions don’t always speak louder than words.
Ferrell’s reticence signals not the stereotype of the laconic Western man — real hombres use fists and bullets instead of words; chatter is for females — but the fact that Ferrell has grown old and tired, that “he senses with absolute clarity every ligament and tendon he owns.” And he doesn’t trust himself to speak: “Words, he’s forever understood, are at best rough approximations of what goes on behind his eyes.” When Ferrell makes an effort to cheer up Cole after his wife deserts him (for Ferrell’s stepson), he says, “You’ll be new and improved, stronger in all the hurt places,” which is both probably untrue and a deliberate reference to an oft-cited line from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
The animals and elements are as essential to this book as the people and their many challenges. The architects of Romanticism embraced nature and turned it holy in a seditious retreat from the religious and moral schemes that contaminated culture. Ferrell’s embrace of the land has no similar ideological program; the beauty exists for no one but remains beauty just the same: “patches of purple lupine and yellow arrowleaf crawl the slopes,” and “night after night they sit before their kingdom of sage and chaparral, of amaranth and Russian thistle.” Nor is Ferrell’s veneration of wildlife totemic; he simply understands that he must share the land with those that came before: coyotes, wild mustangs, herons, turkey vultures. All have their place now in Ferrell’s life.
A dozen yards out a pack of coyotes stands mute in the dark. He can feel the heat of their eyes upon him, can almost hear the breath leave their lungs. If he listens hard enough he believes he can hear the steadiness of their hearts, those ruby-red miracles caged in the jailhouse of their ribs.
Wieland builds prose with “zero at the bone,” and his eye roves the territory with an uncommon lucidity, an artless poeticism. Ferrell sees that “the sun rides its white-glare arc, then drowns in wild red seas at day’s end.” One morning just after dawn, “the fog hangs near the ground like fallen clouds.” Harrison Cole’s “black Dodge diesel stands sun-dazzled in the drive.”
The last story’s partial failure is not Wieland’s but rather an intrinsic failure of the form: for a novel-in-stories to end the final piece must be constructed as a chapter in order to bring together the multifarious elements created en route. “Swan’s Home” is twice as long as any other because it has much finalizing to do, much to account for. The other stories in God’s Dogs stand skillfully alone, but “Swan’s Home” requires those stories in order to make impact, and that impact becomes mildly diminished by the necessary fulfillment of multiple tasks. The narrative goes a bit wayward with its loose threads — Ferrell must return to his native Ohio to muddle through a sudden misfortune he should have seen from afar — until landing, exquisitely, brilliantly, right where it should: with Ferrell and Rilla returned to the lovely wasteland of Idaho, their property and surroundings recently scorched by wildfire, alone together, always. The lights fade on Ferrell Swan as he surveys all he loathes and loves, as their trusted neighbors arrive, as “four tiny figures huddle in a burned-out world.”
New West Book Review
November 29, 2009
By Jenny Shank
“Lone Wolf: A would-be hermit moves to Idaho but can’t escape his past.”
In Boise novelist Mitch Wieland’s God’s Dogs, Ferrell Swan, a sixty-year-old retired Ohio schoolteacher sets out to live alone in a cabin in the Idaho desert for many of the same reasons hermits have been taking to remote outposts for centuries: he seeks solitude, time to reflect in the wilderness, a chance to engage in the physical labor, and above all a break from his interpersonal failures. In heading to Idaho, Ferrell left behind three ex-wives, an angry stepson, and the many social obligations that come with teaching high school in the same community for decades. But the poor guy doesn’t get much of a break: on the first page of God’s Dogs, that ne’er-do-well stepson, Levon, shows up on Ferrell’s doorstep, needing to heal in the wake of a bar fight.
The two haven’t spoken for three years, but the men and Levon’s mother, Rilla, will talk a lot over the course of the book, hashing out what went wrong between them. Ferrell allows Levon to stay, but he’s not exactly happy about it. “Somewhere along the way he’s become a back-to-nature guy or a passive survivalist—he’s not sure which,” Wieland writes, “All he knows is he wanted to be left be after the divorce, and if being left alone meant doing for yourself, then so be it. He grew up working his grandfather’s farm in northeast Ohio—it wasn’t like he was some fed-up lawyer or business suit quitting his hundred thousand per to move to Idaho or Montana and talk to God. In his eyes he was simply returning to his roots for lack of any other damn thing to do.”
God’s Dogs is a “novel in stories,” and each chapter stands alone as a focused story, written in sharp prose with the pleasing density of language that good short stories have. All the chapters were published previously in literary magazines, and one chapter, “The Bones of Hagerman,” was included in the Best of the West 2009 anthology. But readers probably wouldn’t notice that the book is divided into stories if it weren’t for that subtitle. The structure is smooth, proceeding chronologically, with variable gaps in time between where one story leaves off and the next picks up, but always fixing on a critical episode in the evolving relationships between Ferrell, Levon, and Rilla, a triangle that builds to its unsettling climax before the end of the book.
Wieland works with elemental themes, the desert isolation of Ferrell’s cabin in some ways serving as a stage set to show what goes on between one man and one woman when all other distractions are taken away. The ravishing Rilla shows up and Levon disappears again, leaving Ferrell and Rilla to make love, take long—often naked—walks in the desert, and discuss their lives. They observe and howl with coyotes that take on symbolic resonance throughout the book, and Ferrell is reluctant to shoot the coyotes even when they start to destroy his lambs. They witness a herd of mustangs that so captures Rilla’s imagination that she determines to buy one at a BLM auction. But Levon didn’t disappear without stirring up trouble, as usual. Before taking off, Levon had a fling with Ferrell’s neighbor Cole’s much younger wife, leaving her pregnant. The repercussions of this sustain the plot’s momentum for the rest of the book.
As the story plays out, Ferrell realizes that in some ways he’s inherited his father’s tendency to abandon those who love him, and that he has come closer to realizing his father’s Western dream than he ever did. “His father was a flesh-and-blood contradiction, and despite his denial of the farmer’s life, he dreamed daily of the West, of cowboys riding beneath the high hot sun. At the time, it was beyond Ferrell how the man could transform a cattle drive into something other than days of heatstroke and an aching ass.” One day when Ferrell was a teenager, his father began to wear a Stetson and cowboy boots around their Ohio town. He moved to the basement, then left Ferrell and his mother, heading West, but making it no further toward realizing his Western dreams than Los Angeles.
As Ferrell, the would-be hermit learns in the accomplished God’s Dogs, dreams can be difficult to realize, and even their realization can leave one feeling hollow.
Fiction Writers Review
November 04, 2009
By Tyler McMahon
I recently watched a decades-old interview with David Bowie. When asked to speculate on the fate of music in a future full of synthesizers, samplers, and simulacrum, he related the following theory: In the future, to escape an onslaught of reproduced sounds and images, human beings will come home at night, sit in the dark, and touch something made out of wood.
In an age of books built from blogs, tweets, and text messages, Mitch Wieland’s new novel-in-stories feels as though it were made of wood. It is regional, elemental, and bears the marks of its maker: the careful grooves of his chisel, the smooth surfaces from the author’s finest sandpaper, even rough-hewn gouges by what might have been teeth or fingernails.
God’s Dogs (Southern Methodist UP, 2009) follows Ferrell Swan, a man in his early sixties who considers himself a failure in all the roles that matter: son, husband, father. He’s retired early and headed off to the barren landscape of southern Idaho, a self-imposed exile to prevent him from screwing anything else up. For a while, he fills his days with hikes, naps, and half-hearted forays into shepherding. But it isn’t long before his old life—in the form of ex-wife Rilla and stepson Levon—catches up with him.
This book focuses remarkably, relentlessly on the main character. With a small supporting cast and a plot as sparse and unadorned as the sagebrush desert, God’s Dogs becomes a kind of meditation. Ultimately, Ferrell’s dilemma boils down to a question of suffering alone versus suffering with others—which is more bearable, and which is nobler.
Other reviewers have rightly discussed the book as an exploration of solitude. Certainly, its hermit-in-wilderness motif follows in the tradition of Walden, Desert Solitaire and others. However, I’d argue that Wieland’s unsung genius is his rendering of family. While much of this novel could be set a century ago, the depiction of marriage and fatherhood feels up-to-the-second contemporary. Ferrell and Rilla are only able to love each other in divorce, and then only up to a point. Levon—legally an adult, biologically not Ferrell’s son, technically a parent himself—needs more fathering now than ever.
The questions this novel raises about family seem to me the most interesting and the most urgent–questions that may well define our age: Which aspects of marriage should endure and which are outdated? Where do we draw the line between parent and fellow screw-up? How do obligations to kin dovetail with obligations to one’s own happiness?
Over the passionately carved and carefully polished course of God’s Dogs, the love of family is revealed to be not so much unconditional as it is inescapable.
The Dallas Morning News
June 7, 2009
By Si Dunn
Ferrell Swan has fled urban Ohio for a manufactured cabin in rural isolation. Now he figures his ex-wife will try to “pull him back from the brink of his own retirement survivalism … ” Instead, she starts “sending him further down the path . . . pointing the way.” Wieland’s appealing novel is told in a series of short stories.
The Idaho Librarian
By Heidi Naylor
In the opening pages of Mitch Wieland’s novel-in-stories, “spectacular failure” Ferrell Swan spends an afternoon ear-tagging sheep with his wayward stepson, Levon. At Ferrell’s insistence, the two begin at daybreak and work through long, dusty hours to keep the hounds of sorrow at bay.
A mute sheep, held by Levon and ear-punched by Ferrell, “shudders at the instant of bright pain, then looks on like nothing’s happened.”
It is an apt metaphor for Ferrell’s habitual inclination to stand the heartaches of life with emotional retreat. After years of stormy marriage to ex-wife Rilla, endless futile efforts to keep Levon out of trouble, and a lackluster career teaching high school history, Ferrell now retreats physically as well. In this “steep downhill slide of his life,” he has abandoned the trimmed neighborhoods of small-town Ohio and moved to a hundred-acre moonscape of scrubland near southwest Idaho’s Owyhee range.
But escape does not confer peace, and the ties that bind us are not so easily cut. As the stories unfold, memory and regret are laid bare for Ferrell by each daily sweep of sun and wind. His depleted heart is asked again and again to take on the burdens as well as the transcendence of family. Levon’s appearance is complicated as he quickly fathers a child with the sexy wife of Ferrell’s neighbor. Ex-wife Rilla makes bold pilgrimages to and from Ferrell’s desert home, a place that, to the surprise of all involved, begins to make its claims on the soul.
The land itself is a character here, featuring the brutal extremes of weather as well as rattlesnakes, graceful hawks, wild mustangs, and a far-flung and ragtag assemblage of renegades and hermits. It shelters, too, a pack of coyotes–God’s dogs–who, according to Navajo legend, created the world.
The coyotes move in and out of the new landscape of Ferrell Swan, their peculiar brand of outcast, scrapper, and survivor slowly rebuilding his own broken hopes. In prose that is chiseled and windswept, full of desire and a harsh elegance, Wieland presents Ferrell’s retreat as inversely resonant of the American dream of the West as the frontier of possibility. Ferrell’s dream is instead to escape from regret and responsibility. Near the novel’s close, he “drives through a blackness total and complete, the high desert invisible all around, though beyond his headlights he knows the road touches tomorrow.” Tomorrow, for the dreamer, is the convergence of “hopeful wish and absolute truth.” For Ferrell Swan, this convergence is astonishing in ways both lovely and sorrowful.
God’s Dogs is the second novel by Wieland, who has achieved prominence as editor of the highly regarded Idaho Review literary magazine. Each of the ten stories comprising the novel appeared in literary magazines of strong reputation, and one story, “The Bones of Hagerman,” was reprinted in the Best of the West 2009 anthology. Each can stand on its own as a complete and satisfying drama. Taken together, the stories present a unique and robust meditation on the ways love and land sustain us.
The Boise Weekly
July 1, 2009
By Christian A. Winn
Word Perfect: Mitch Wieland’s Literary Milestones
Mitch Wieland is in a good mood right now. And he has reason to be. The writer, family man, Boise State professor and founder and editor of The Idaho Review–an annual literary journal–has a lot going his way. His second novel, God’s Dogs: A Novel in Stories, has just been released by SMU Press to high praise from the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford. The award-winning Idaho Review’s 10th anniversary issue has also just come out and features high-quality fiction by authors such as Rick Bass, Chris Offutt, Melanie Rae Thon, Stuart Dybek and Edith Pearlman. One of Wieland’s stories, “The Bones of Hagerman,” which is included in God’s Dogs, has been chosen to appear this fall in the anthology The Best of the West 2009 alongside writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx. “Swan’s Home,” also in the novel, won the annual Prairie Schooner award for short fiction this spring.
It’s no wonder Wieland looked happy sitting in his book- and manuscript-cluttered office housed in a converted ’70s-era apartment building on University Drive as he discussed his recent literary accomplishments.
“There really have been some exciting things going on lately,” Wieland said, reaching for a copy of the new Idaho Review. “The issue just came out, and I think it looks fantastic.”
He handed across the nearly 300-page journal, pointing out his fondness for the Godzilla cover art by Boise State Art Department Chair Richard A. Young.
“We redesigned the whole thing last year and are super pleased with the presentation, the new fonts and, of course, the really high quality work we keep putting out into the world,” Wieland said.
The Idaho Review, which Wieland started in 1998, has been praised from the start as one of the country’s top-tier literary journals, and has the awards to prove it. Nine pieces from the journal–which publishes fiction, poetry, the occasional essay and, this year, included a piece of illustrated fiction by Pinckney Benedict–have been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, New Stories From the South and The Best of the West, The O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Awards: Best of the Small Presses.
“For a venture run on a shoestring budget, and staffed by dedicated students from the MFA and MA programs, our track record has given us a keen sense of accomplishment,” Wieland wrote in his editor’s note of this year’s Idaho Review.
And this sense of accomplishment is no doubt coupled with pride and pleasure for Wieland as God’s Dogs hits the shelves here in town and nationally.
“It’s been so good to get the book out. These are stories I’ve worked on for several years now,” Wieland said. “A lot of them I wrote when I was on sabbatical in 2004. I took the semester and following summer that year and really bore down, got the work done.”
The linked stories in God’s Dogs follow the life in exodus of Ferrell Swan, a former educator who has fled his half-broken life in Ohio to come West and live on a broad, desolate swath of land in the high desert below the Owyhee range. The book opens with Ferrell Swan turning 60 and “entering what he views as the steep downhill slide of his life,” which he has chosen to live out in relative isolation. But throughout the book, his isolation is interrupted–sometimes the interruptions are welcomed, other times not so much–by his troubled stepson Levon, his beautifully philosophical and headstrong ex-wife Rilla, his eccentrically endearing neighbors Cole and Moonbeam, and Din Withers, who lives underground in a buried and fully outfitted storage tank.
Ferrell’s life out West unfolds episodically as he deals with Levon’s meddling and neediness, with Rilla’s troubling companionship and desires to understand and love him, with Din and Cole’s fractured pasts and with odd everyday occurrences, all the while trying to understand his own twisted up life and spirit, his own strange draw to his new piece of the world.
Throughout God’s Dogs, Wieland tracks Ferrell’s fascination with the raptors floating the high skies, with the rangeland’s galloping wild mustangs, and especially with the howling songs and eternal presence of the coyotes (known as “god’s dogs” in Native American lore). All of it leads readers vividly and poetically through the way a man like Swan confronts his life in the face of a harsh natural world.
The land itself becomes a character in God’s Dogs, with Wieland’s prose eloquently documenting seasons of blinding snow, heavy fog, charging wind and oppressive heat on the high desert.
A telling passage from “The King of Infinite Space,” the second story in the book, reads: “An Indian summer runs its course in blazing afternoons of sun and sky. Along the river the trees burn in perpetual flame, while higher up the redtails slip their shadows over the ground. When Rilla does daily tai chi in the yard, Ferrell naps in his shorts and bare skin, the sunglow a narcotic in his blood.”
Wieland works hard to put us inside Ferrell’s head and spirit, and upon that land he walks and breathes, throughout God’s Dogs. And it’s a complicated pleasure as all good fiction must be, to be cast out there with Ferrell and Rilla and the rest as so many big questions are dealt with: How do we love? How do we share who we are? What do we run from? Who do we run to? Where do we belong? Where is home?
By Janelle Brown
With its stunning vistas and harsh climate, the Owyhee Desert in Southwest Idaho can seem a mythical place. In Mitch Wieland’s well-received new novel, God’s Dogs, the Owyhee Desert also is a place of transparence, where complex emotions are laid bare under the heat of a blazing sun.
“There was something about those endless miles of sage and chaparral that got under my skin,” said Wieland, a professor in Boise State’s MFA program in Creative Writing and founding and current editor of the university’s literary journal The Idaho Review. “I found myself writing these stories because I wanted to capture the powerful sensations I was feeling.”
Written as a series of interconnected short stories, God’s Dogs brings to life Ferrell Swan, a retired teacher who has fled the shambles of his life in Ohio for Idaho’s high desert. Through visits from his stepson and his ex-wife and through occasional contacts with a few reclusive neighbors – including a fellow who lives underground in a storage tank – Swan moves toward self-acceptance and discovery.
The dramatic landscapes of the Owyhee Desert and the wild animals that roam there, including mustangs and coyotes – the “God’s dogs” of the book’s title – are integral to the stories Wieland weaves. God’s Dog’s was praised by Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Ford as “fastidious, trenchant, spare and often eloquent. Mitch Wieland’s stories have great breadth, powerful sympathies, and a renewing comprehension of our human selves we only find in the best literature.”
One of the book’s stories, “The Bones of Hagerman” was among only 18 selected for inclusion in the 2009 Best of the West Anthology. Editors reviewed 250 magazines and journals in making their selections, and Wieland’s story appears alongside the work of famed writers Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates and Louise Erdrich.
God’s Dogs is Wieland’s second novel. His first, Willy Slater’s Lane, published in 1996, was described as “immensely moving” by The New York Times and received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.
Wieland is the recipient of a 2007 Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, and two literature fellowships from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. He currently is working on a novel set in Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for several years.
Emerging Writers Network
December 13, 2008
By Dan Wickett
What Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2009
May will see Southern Methodist University Press bringing out God’s Dogs from Mitch Wieland. This will be their second collaboration and their first, Willy Slater’s Lane, pulled off a 5 star review from the EWN back in 2002. God’s Dogs is a novel in stories and I’m excited as I’ve read a few of Wieland’s stories since loving his novel, and because Kathryn Lang at SMU Press does a remarkable job of finding steadily incredible quiet writers. Rare is the big care chase, or explosion, or even protagonist with out of the ordinary problems – instead she finds writers that mine the daily lives of people that you might know, that you might be, and do so with an intelligence and care that makes you the reader care about them and what happens to them. I’m positive this effort will be no different for either Wieland, or Lang’s SMU Press.
Emerging Writers Network
May 19, 2009
By Dan Wickett
Short Story Month: Story of the Day
Thank goodness there’s a Southern Methodist University Press around to keep publishing books by people like Mitch Wieland. God’s Dogs: A Novel in Stories is just that, a novel in stories. Fully developed, stand-alone stories, but when put together can also be considered a novel.
“The Mistress of the Horse God” is the third of these stories that cover years of Ferrell Swan’s later years. He’s 60 years old and wandering his property – acres and acres of Idaho land—with his ex-wife, who has been “visiting” for nearly eight months now.
At the bottom of the ridge rests the complete skeleton of a wild mustang, Wieland the wildness still there though the bones don’t move. Ferrell discovered the skeleton when he first hiked his land, astonished at the bright white skull and its dark eerie sockets, at the curved hoopwork of ribs, the long leg shafts tucked as if the animal still might rise. He knows the place possesses a sacredness that never diminishes over time.
To his surprise, Rilla kneels before the bones. She rolls the enormous skull over, and the lower jaw falls free, leaving in one piece the cranium with hits long snout and toothy upper jaw. Ferrell can see the underside of the cranium is broken. Rilla lifts the partial skull from its resting place and holds the thing in front of her. From where Ferrell stands, she seems to slip the skull over her head, her fingers gripping the snout.
Ferrell grows loose in the knees for the second time that morning: a horse skull atop the body of a naked woman, some ancient creature from folklore, some monster from dreams born of desire and fear. He stares into the skull’s shadowy sockets.
“I am the mistress of the horse god,” she says, her words in the voice of someone else. “Lucky god,” Ferrell says, more unsettled than he wants to be. He feels his reality too altered right now, feels they’ve changed from who they were when they left the cabin an hour before.
“You dare to mock the horse god?” Rilla says. “You dare to look upon his mistress with lustful eyes?”
Ferrell stands sweating beneath the hot sun. He doesn’t know why the moment has turned so creepy so fast. He wants to say he’s spooked, but can’t utter a word. He suspects that soon she may be gone, headed back to that red brick house from their past. He pictures his cabin without her, the small rooms again just rooms and nothing more. He thinks to tell her something important about their lives, something that will make her spring into his arms, but he knows each insight is lost when spoken aloud. To his relief, Rilla lowers the skull before he can answer.
“You lost your chance there, Ferrell. I hear horse women can make a man beg.”
“Or worse,” Ferrell says and smiles to hide his fears.
A great deal of the above captures Mitch Wieland—his characters long. Long to not be alone, to feel that there is a place for them, to believe there is a reason they’re here. There’s an almost mythological presence the expansive west has and Wieland expands on that with the mustang skull.
There are no pyrotechnics to Wieland’s writing, no monstrous plots or action sequences. He simply writes with the best of them, capturing human emotions and fears and loves and all that goes with them. That he does so with a quiet determination, and not smoke and fireworks, is that much more impressive.