Dog Years
Melissa Yancy
(University of Pittsburgh)
In one of her stories, Ms. Yancy tells of a reunion of kidney donors - - - those who give, and those who receive. In this, we find that many of the recipients give names to their prized new transplants: Beverly, the subject of "Go Forth," calls hers "Blanche." She wonders about the donors, as her husband Sheldon (a donor, but to someone else) comes to think of himself as a "former owner."

He thought to himself, that he had "merely been a sixty-five year host to his kidney, here unnamed . . . I've been a host to this kidney for many years, a kidney that now, like some foreign student on exchange, had been shipped off only never to return." He thought that if his kidney had gone to Beverly, "would not have been entirely lost; it would still have been there, residing beside him."

Ms. Yancy does seem to have some bit of a fixation on bodily ills. One story - - - a very moving one as it happens - - - tells of a boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which will kill him before he has much time to enjoy adult life. This does not preclude this young man, as pictured by the writer, as being rather fun, and filled with life, such that his mother wonders about buying Peanut Butter Cheerios for him, such a crappy expensive "non-nourishing breakfast for Zach." But then again . . .

Another deals with a famous surgeon's father, dying of lung cancer, Stage IV. The old man turns out to be a charmer, not only for his son, and a neighboring architect, but for the reader.

Miriam in "Miracle Girl Grows Up," had been diagnosed with leukemia at age thirteen. She survives, and by being named the "Miracle Girl" has been able to meet the president and, more exciting, has a chance to visit with Madonna, complete with photographs: "they'd posed outside the entry gate, Miriam in her matching doggie pajamas, Madonna in a fancy sweatsuit."

    Madonna has done the notorious Letterman interview the year before, when she said fuck thirteen times and kept trying to get him to smell her underwear. Most mothers didn't want their girls watching her videos, much less spending time alone at their house. But Miriam had learned the rules were different for kids who'd recovered from cancer.

In fact, if there is a theme here, it is how a powerful illness or bodily disfigurement or even a mere physical difference (as an adult, Miriam stands at a mere 4' 10") can get weirdly turned around by the public. People with a transplanted liver are different, but one might find it weird that they have a get-together where they can meet.

§   §   §

These stories come alive with "Hounds," one of the best in the book. It concerns Jess, a worker in a special clinic. She was going to be a cop when she grew up:

    It was her broad shoulders and slim hips, she'd decided, that allowed people to imagine her with a gun in hand. It was odd how whole personalities - - - capabilities, even - - - were assumed from such details.

But, in the summer after college, while her mother was dying of cancer, she spent so much time in the hospital, it "had begun to feel like a place where she could belong." So she ends up in a speciality surgical program that she coördinated, which "had become known around the country for complex reconstructions for service members." We start off at a meeting of doctors who are explaining the procedure to a young man (he works for a rich potential benefactor of the hospital).

    The surgeon explained how a full face transplant from a donor could provide superior results, how the entire infrastructure of the face - - - bone, muscles, arteries, and all - - - would be sawed off the donor's head then screwed on and stitched up in one clean piece."

This story, of all things, reminded me of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" in which the victim is required to have an old, fall-apart machine inscribe, over the complete surface of his body, the nature of his crime . . . a full body tattoo explaining his wickedness, as it were.

And as we go through the story, what happens is that we find ourselves treated to all sorts of asides: how the machine is seen as a historical artifact, how it is being scorned by some, how effective it is over all other competing ideas for "punishment." The details conspire to draw us away from the nature of the punishment, its historical importance for those who have been the operators over these many years, the philosophy of this needle-point machine, as it were.

In Ms. Yancy's "Hounds," the face-transplant business becomes an aside as Jess and one of the earlier heroes of the procedure, a Corporal Nicholas Tucker, meet again, old buddies as they have become over the years, to talk about how bored he has become at attending the various formal dinners that have been convened to tell the world what a hero he is:

    "The clapping," he said. "The relentless clapping at these things. Do you know how much I've grown to hate that sound?"

    They had reached the hospital hotel, and she leaned over his body to open his door.

    "Even the best show pony gets retired eventually," he said.

    But when the surgeries had rendered a face as good as it was going to get, burns got stiff again and required touch-ups to keep the flexibility in the features. So a guy might come back year after year, until the surgical fatigue was too much, when one more time was one time too many.

    "You're ruining me," he said.

    Jess did not know if the you meant the program or Jess or both or if there was even a distinction for the Corporal anymore.

Like the Officer in "In the Penal Colony," a certain nostalgia reigns in "Hounds." In the former, it it the certainty of the machine, which in a matter of hours, could make the condemned being engraved with the words of his punishment come to see the light, which in turn becomes a justification of this type of punishment. In "Hounds," there is the nostalgia of Jess and, to some extent, the Corporal, for the old days, when they had first met, and slept together, for "she had closed her eyes at night and pictured - - - almost against her own will - - - a man with no face entering her, and it had given her a nauseating thrill."

Along with this kicker, we get to learn a few other truths about being a man who, in the course of his military service, had lost his face. What does happen when you get a new one? He is, in interview, talking about how people used to stare, but had recently stopped doing so.

    Even kids would look away. Now they just ask what happened to my face. Because now it is a face . . . [Before] it was really hard to look at. It wasn't something you could just get used to. I may not be pretty now," he smiled again," but you can get used to it. It's not a shock over and over again."

§   §   §

There are nine stories in this volume. At least seven of them are winners, built as short stories should be built: with endless details, things that are odd, gory (in some cases), at first seemingly off message, but as it grows on you, essential to what is being laid out in the tale.

Like our charming father, lung cancer, Stage IV, dying, in "Consider This Case." He tells his son how he is to dress his body when he dies:

    He follows his father into the bedroom, where he rolls open the left hand side of the closet. On a wooden hanger is a cream-colored evening suit. His father lifts the hanger off the rod and pulls it out, gently running his hands along the back of the suit to show it to Julian. Next, he holds up a light teal dress shirt with French cuffs.

    "When have you ever worn that?" Julian asks.

His father responds, "If you can't be yourself when you're dead, who can you be?"

--- Lolita Lark
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