Tony Earley: “Jack and the Mad Dog”
11/13/2012 § 1 Comment
Originally published in The New Yorker, October 1, 2012.
This is one of those stories that’s going to fare poorly purely by comparison. Looking at “Jack, that Jack, the giant-killer of the bean tree” through the less-than-generous literary lens (taking him out of the context and comfort of a fable where “nothing really bad ever happened to him, that he was impervious to injury, if not to embarrassment”) has been done in musicals like Into the Woods and written about in comics like Fables or the various works of Neil Gaiman and the interpretation we get of the harebrained hero here is roughly the same. Earley’s writing is fine, and in contrast to those adaptations, he takes more of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-like approach, with Jack drinking some “seeing juice” while waiting to pay a farmer’s wife four dollars to (unenthusiastically) schtupp her. His visions include the titular dog — a manifestation of his mortality/death — and a field filled with the many young maidens that he’d desecrated over the years, without ever learning a single name. These secondary characters, when not in Jack’s story, are stuck in limbo: so the father he drugged in order to sleep (separately) with his twins never wakes up, and the girls never stop weaving baskets or churning butter. (“‘And nobody else came down the road.’ ‘Not ever.'”) The dog itself pops up out of nowhere: “‘A minute ago I wasn’t here, but now I am,” says the dog. Replies Jack: “Limited omniscient narrator. My point of view.”
As Jack tries to escape the end of his story, this rabid dog, Earley makes jokes about “the exposition implied” within the “miles and hours and years and lifetimes of corn” that he runs through, and attempts to shock the reader with revelations of Jack’s relative baseness and stupidity. At odds with this, but only slightly so, are his lovely yet drawn out descriptions: “Maidens whose firm flanks fetchingly swayed and flounced, their downy bosoms heaving and swelling; maidens whose flaxen and wheat and chestnut and mahogany and ebony and sable and scarlet and crimson hair billowed and flowed and streamed….” Who exactly is setting this scene? Jack, with his crude and apparently Southern dialect doesn’t have the intelligence or insight (and as noted, the story’s in the third-person’s limited omniscient voice), and it’s not clear what these moments accomplish or add to defining Jack’s character (as the story purports to do), aside from showing off. I’m all for the appropriation and analysis of myths, and I love the so-called “darkening” of the entertainment industry, in which once-bright and/or campy heroes like Batman and Iron Man (or James Bond) are forced to struggle through a darker, grittier, more challenging world. But when the farmer calls out across the dark field to a slightly drunken “but not pleasantly so” Jack, “Don’t beg. You used to be somebody,” one expects the story to . . . I don’t know, delve into these missed opportunities, lowered expectations, or clashes between dreams and realities. To be a story about something, rather than just a Rumpelstiltskin-ish story (that is, all yarn and word play), the sort that, once you know what it’s about — its name, to extend the metaphor — you know the whole story already.
To his credit, Earley’s writing is lucid, and his Jack is clearly represented as a dullard, the sort who, having had things handed to him by old men his entire life, is now incapable of figuring out much on his own (although he does manage to escape at least the first coming of the rabid dog). But the story ends by noting that “when he looked up the girls were gone, vanished as completely as if they had been imagined for a moment along the side of a road and just as quickly forgotten,” and I fear that this piece only demonstrates the forgetting in of its own shaky irrelevance.