By: Melissa Yancy
Series: Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition (October 5, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Ellen, a molecular geneticist, labors to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy while also maintaining for “the principle of the thing” a normal home life for her children, including the son who suffers from the disease she is researching. Ellen is so tired that she forgets which season it is. She gasps “with primal relief” when her husband gives her a watch that spells the time out in words — thus sparing her the mental effort of translating numbers to language. When Ellen gives a lecture, a student stands up and asks if it is bad that she wants to study Alzheimer’s because her grandfather died of it.
“Define bad,” Ellen answers.
There are no easy answers in Dog Years and no easy definitions either. The winner of the 2016 Pitt Drue Heinz Literature Prize, this intelligent and deeply felt collection of short stories uses the limitations and changes of the human body to explore the even more profound questions of time, purpose, possibility, and the need for hope, or at least an occasional lie. In Consider This Case, Julian, a gay fetal surgeon, is visited by his proud, judgemental, dying father. Although the issue is never directly stated, the surgeon appears to be the only person who doesn’t guess that his father has spent his life as a closeted gay man. In a complex and beautifully interwoven series of images and subplots, we see both hidden shame and genuine, well-lived outward lives. A patient is forced to spend two months carrying a dead baby inside her while oblivious strangers ask her about her pregnancy. The father can never acknowledge his orientation and can almost never bear to mention another son who was addicted to drugs. This impeccably groomed old man locks himself in the bedroom so that he can hide his physical deterioration. Both father and physician son are stunned by his sad exposure.
His father is wet, prone on the floor between the shower and the toilet; there is a smear of feces across the floor in front of him, and Julian cannot quite piece together the order of events. Without his clothes on, his father looks more than naked — he is a sea creature yanked from its shell. . . . It is not until later, after he has dried his father and put him in his proper pajama set and gone to sleep out on the couch so that he can come to him in the night, that he closes his eyes and finally sees his drooping breasts, the last tuft of hair sprouting proudly on his concave chest, his skin so translucent it’s a road map, a surgeon’s dream.
And yet, while his father dies, never able to speak his own truth or his connection with his gay son, life goes on. Julian is a kind man, and though there is much he is unable to see, he presses on with coworkers who love him and a host of patients who thrive. After a night of near unconsciousness, the father rallies so successfully that he is up the next morning smiling and making chocolate-chip pancakes. Julian wonders if there is some deep truth his father needs to pass on. Perhaps. It is not a truth that can be spoken out loud, but it can exist nevertheless in the strange, sweet tableau that ends this story. As Ellen would put it, “Define bad.”
In Firstborn, a woman thinks that she would rather suffer her delusions than her sister’s boring realities, when she leaves for Paris hungover, abandoned, comforted by “the familiar, stale odor” of the plane as she “settles in for the duration.” She has tried and failed at a moment of connection. Even in Paris, she will still be aging and alone, trapped in her own very limited world. Go Forth is a story about a “chain” of kidney donors, a large group of strangers who donate a kidney so that their own loved one can receive a kidney from someone with whom they are compatible. It is a profound and bizarre form of connection, taking someone else’s organ into your own body, and meeting their fellow “chain” members is a disorientating experience for one couple. For the husband, there seems to be a moment of grace and lasting gratitude. The wife, on the other hand, who has had her health restored, “(D)id not know what she would do with this feeling, this imperative to commence, but already she feared that the execution of it would be small.”
The characters in Dog Years meet their limitations as their bodies age, grow cancer, go to war, pass genetic defects down to their children. There are horrible realities which can never be overcome, and yet Yancy is able to show us in many unsentimental ways the great strengths and small weaknesses that allow people to go forward. Ellen will almost certainly outlive her son. He is barely an adolescent, and he is already beginning to have trouble standing and walking. Ellen and her other son join him as he exuberantly practices a drama class exercise of pretending to run in slow motion to the music from Chariots of Fire. She thinks of the song as “the most undeniable kind of lie,” and is not surprised at the difficulty of pretending to run fast. “If she knows nothing, it should be how hard it is to bend time, how pointless it is to muscle against.” Still when her husband comes home, “(T)hey are just reaching the treacly crescendo and mother and sons are standing, fists wild in the air, necks craning forward, and she has the stupid feeling for just a moment that she can feel the wind.”