The Black Dog Eats the City
by Chris Kelso
The Black Dog Eats the City is a thoughtful and well-written novel. Author Chris Kelso imagines an incurable plague that is far worse than a monstrous but materially definable invading force. He takes us into the lives of several characters who are consumed by the Black Dog. The story starts with a man who has lost his family and leaves his city in search of a cure. It continues with two clueless men who hit the road with doomed plans to sell a girl’s rotting teeth. From this grim beginning it weaves through the lives of several characters—some human, some not, exactly—who are all profoundly impacted by the Black Dog.
Kelso’s storytelling approach is not traditional. Some sections read like interlinked short stories. Others include poetry, screenplay and comic book format. Some chapters are numbered, others titled. Font size changes. But for me Kelso’s command of language and development of theme keep these mixed techniques from feeling haphazard. Some readers might have a problem with details evoked in such a way that suggest a story arc that is never developed. It might help to look at this novel as designed like a crazy stained-glass window. The eye may be drawn to pieces that contribute less to the overall pattern than you might expect because the overall pattern is not a pleasing and happy one.
And that’s where I feel the book shows its true, dark genius. Because the light shining through this window changes in brilliance and hue until it eventually fades away so that what is left is a dark mirror of ourselves and our fearfully conditioned lives. But there is compassion in this mirror, as well as humor and empathy for the characters who suffer in it. In short, the book is heavy stuff. It’s a nihilistic dose of how I imagine a trip on ayahuasca might feel, a journey with a deeper story arc than more commercial methods of narrative and characterization would allow.
You might get a sense that Kelso puts aesthetic and emotion above mass market entertainment value, and you would be right in that this book is definitely not for mainstream tastes. But if you like horror, science fiction, nightmarish cityscapes and outsider characters, and are not put off by experimentation and symbolism, you will find these things uplifted to a powerful literary vision of the human condition.
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