Selection I: Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”
My friend John and I have decided to start what amounts to a very small reading club. Each week one of us will chose a story or short prose selection. We’ll both read it, and the next week post our thoughts. The stories will be chosen more or less at random; the intention is not to pick things near and dear to both of our arts so much as exercise our critical muscles. Since we’ll also post the stories we’re going to be reading on our blog in advance, anyone else who wants to contribute may do so. And if there are any stories or prose selections that you want to read, send them in, and we’ll do so.
This week’s story is “The Chain.” It’s from Tobias Wolff’s collection The Night In Question.
The story opens with a man and the daughter playing outside. A large dog from a nearby house runs towards the man’s daughter, aiming, it seems, to hurt her. The dog seizes the girl by the shoulder, shaking her from side to side. The man manages to prevent serious bodily harm being done to his daughter by biting the dog through the ear.
Back home, the man considers taking action against the dog’s owners, but is told he can’t; despite almost killing the girl, the dog was in fact tethered to a chain (just a very long one). The man's cousin, hearing this, volunteers to kill the dog and the man eventually agrees. The act sets in motion a chain of interactions which eventually lead to a death.
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I thought the best parts of “The Chain” were in the section leading up to the murder of the dog. Once the dog is killed, the story starts to sag under the weight of its rather mundane ideas. (A chain connects us all. One act ramifies outward in unforeseen ways. If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a wombat in Peru gets sick....) The story reminded me, in an odd way, of Pulp Fiction, or Go—some movie in which a number of disparate characters are all implicated because of things the other one’s do. Except this is not as good.
There were a few nice moments:
-The semicolon (instead of the word ‘but’) in this sentence: “He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”
-“He knew it was trite to marvel at the way time could stretch and stall.”
- A small technical thing I noticed and will probably steal: the ‘open dialogue technique’ used at the start. After the opening dog attack scene, the protagonist describes what’s happened. But for two paragraphs, we, the reader, have no idea who he’s talking to.
-I loved the description of his cousin: “his cousin had an exacting irritable sense of justice, and a ready store of loyal outrage that Gold had drawn on since they were boys.” That may be the best sentence in the whole story: “an exacting irritable sense of justice” perfectly captures a certain type of person.
-The small detail, in the conversation between Gold and his cousin, when the cousin, “shoved the naugahyde ottoman with his foot until it was facing Gold, then sat on it and leaned forward, so close their knees were touching.” Great sentence, great moment. Also, Gold has naugahyde, not real leather—that’s how it should be.
-To build drama, the cousin refuses to “poison or glass....” (sic?) the dog because “that’s chickenshit. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.” I had problems with this: I thought it was done because the writer wanted it that way, not because it was true. It seems like a small lie to me. If for some reason I had to kill a neighbor’s dog, poison seems like by far the best way. And I don’t know that anyone would care that much about being thought a coward in that context; killing someone’s pet is already incredibly cowardly.
-The buildup to Gold deciding to have his cousin kill the dog.... First, the casual anti-Semitisim at his work. Then his own sense of being passive, his worry that the anti-Semitic stereotypes which trap (chain) him are, in some way, accurate. The fistfight he watches outside his store. The visit to the dog owner’s neighborhood, where he encounters their wealth as a barrier, protecting them from justice. (“The deep thunk of the brass knocker against the great green door, the glittering chandelier in the foyer, the Cinderella sweep of the staircase with its monumental newel post and gleaming rail—all this would tell you that the law was among friends here.”)