September 13, 2012


The Shape of the Final Dog. By Hampton Fancher. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.

      There is a time-honored tradition of starting stories in the middle of things.  Hampton Fancher’s first short-story collection starts things in the middle, ends them somewhere else in the middle, and spends most of the middle of things in the middle.  It is a muddle of middles – middlingly well written but not, all in all, conclusive on any level.

      Fancher, the original screenwriter of the film Blade Runner 30 years ago, has one story here with a touch of Blade Runner sensibility: the title piece, offered last in the book.  It is one of the most effective stories here, with some sense of character and some interestingly twisty events.  But a reader who goes through the book from start to finish must wade through a lot of lesser material to get to the good stuff.

      There is, for example, Rat Hall Jack, which is about a man living in a falling-down house where there are snakes in the walls; Jack’s relationship with a woman named Stewart includes lines such as, “He lips her lips above and below” and “Jack doesn’t like the likely, the probable; only the impossible could be perfect.”  Eventually, not much happens.

      A fair amount does happen in the paired-but-separated stories, The Black Weasel and The Black Weasel, II, which involve a failed New York City bartender returning to his home in the Deep South, accompanied by a mute black man whom he has seen repeatedly and with whom he has connected by chance – and who has an unexplainable amount of cash, no shoes, and no concerns about being turned into a “Wild Man” (using tar and cast-off hair) for a tumbledown carnival, but who may be (or may have been) more than he seems to be.  The working-out of all this is about as incoherent as it sounds: Fancher seems to equate post-modernist sensibility with an unwillingness to make definitive statements about pretty much anything.

      The descriptions of the stories make them sound more interesting than they are.  Teeth is a short-short about a Spanish woman whose stomach had vestigial teeth in it – a congenital condition – and about a man who thinks she is Arab.  Nothing happens.  Cargot is about a failed actor reincarnated as a garden snail, predictably naming himself “S. Cargot,” and apparently telling the story after he has died a second time.  Concorde is about a man trying, and failing, to pick up a girl, and having a series of uninteresting thoughts about ways to do so.  The intriguingly titled The Climacteric of Zackary Ray (Fancher is better at titles than stories), another sort-of-about-an-actor tale, includes a couple of sentences that stand for pretty much this entire collection’s would-be-absurdist attitude: “A jug of apple juice he never drank triggered a trip he had no reason to take and he winds up with a turtle.  Anything could happen, things added up.”  But for all Fancher’s wordplay and his hints that things could add up, they rarely do add up.  All the confusion of narrative tenses, connection of unrelated images and series of happenings that add up to not much come across as self-indulgent, self-important stylistic tics that draw attention to themselves but do not, in the final analysis, add up to compelling narratives, interesting characters, or stories that seem to have much to say beyond “look how clever I am.”

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