The Barking Dog: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780887621048

The Barking Dog: A Novel

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9780887621048: The Barking Dog: A Novel
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Told with such humour and suspense that it’s hard to put down...A rare achievement, an unstintingly honest, hilarious, and dreadful delight.” Globe and Mail

Greer Pentland is having a challenging year. Her teenaged son, Sam, is on trial for the murder of two senior citizens, a crime allegedly committed while he was sleepwalking. Greer is also battling breast cancer, a disease that has left her with a litany of physical side effects and deep anger toward the incompetence of the medical profession.

Yet, in the face of all these obstacles, Greer’s story is full of hope and delicious dark humour. Her indelible strength is fuelled by her unconditional love for her son and the moral support she receives from her 88-year-old aunt, a chain-smoking, vodka-swilling, vitamin-popping senior whose continual commentary on the morbid news of the day is wickedly funny and provocative. This novel about one courageous woman’s fight to survive in a post-millennium culture gone mad is heroic, heart stopping, and affecting.

The Barking Dog, the fifth novel from Cordelia Strube, Canada’s pre-eminent writer of urban fiction, is an unforgettable portrait of modern life in these media-saturated, apocalyptic times.

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About the Author:

Cordelia Strube is an accomplished playwright and the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Teaching Pigs to Sing, Lemon, and On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light. Winner of the CBC literary competition and a Toronto Arts Foundation Award, she has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Prix Italia, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A two-time finalist for ACTRA’s Nellie Award celebrating excellence in Canadian broadcasting, she is also a three-time nominee for the ReLit Award. She lives in Toronto, ON, Canada.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


It started with me thinking there was a man in the house. I’d wake Jerry. There is no man,” he’d say.

It was around this time he started screwing what’s-her-face.

So I’d tell myself I was imagining things, that maybe I wanted there to be a man, that maybe my man-phobia was what Jerry would call an attention-getting device. But suspecting that the man was inside my head didn’t make me feel any better. Because I started to fear that he was embodying something hideous in my makeup, something I couldn’t face. I would’ve preferred to have been robbed. I could’ve called somebody, dialled 911. I’ve always wanted to dial 911. The thugs-in-blue could’ve come with guns.

I don’t know what I imagined the man was doing in my house because in the morning nothing was out of place; the stereo was intact, the TV, the VCR objects I hated and would’ve liked to have had stolen. Objects that absorbed my beautiful son and transformed him into an unresponsive, twitching blob.

The man stayed in my consciousness for a couple of years. I dreaded going to bed because he’d be lurking downstairs, fingering my belongings, sneering at the wedding photo and Jerry’s phallic golf trophy (another object I would’ve liked to have had stolen). I’d knocked the stupid thing over at least five times, and once threw it at Jerry. It was unbreakable.

I never went to look for the man myself. I don’t know what I was afraid of: that he didn’t exist?

The prosecution’s been trying to sniff out dysfunction” in my family: personality disorders, anti-social behaviour. Something that would constitute conditioning for a psychopath. I worry that on the stand my dysfunction will show. Which would be bad for Sam. I’m supposed to appear normal, just as he’s supposed to appear normal.

The point about the man business is that it occurred just before I realized that Jerry was screwing what’s-her-face. Not the one he married, but the first one my neighbour who borrowed things from me: garden tools, blankets, roasting pans. She had her own husband. They played golf together, went to Florida and Arizona to try different courses. So I don’t understand what she was doing with my husband. But then I’ve never understood what’s so great about golf.

Now I know that the man” was the cancer stalking me. The cancer was embodying the hideousness in my makeup.

The joke is that Jerry was diagnosed with it first. I’d told him to go to the doctor because he was chronically fatigued, beyond his regular Jerry-not-wanting-to-do-anything-with-his-family fatigue. He went for tests, then more tests. I took the doctor’s call because Jerry was too scared to talk to him. He stood watching me, his face flaccid, waiting for the verdict. I decided that even if the news was good, I’d appear grim, just to rattle Jerry.

Yes,” I said sombrely to the doctor. I understand . . . unhunh . . . unhunh . . . yes . . . I see.” Something like that. I was simply absorbing his diagnosis, not repeating it. But Jerry panicked before I even got off the phone. He walked into the closet and closed the door.

It was thyroid cancer in the early stages. There was to be minor surgery and radiation. Small stuff compared to what I would have to go through.

I stared at the closet. Come out, Jerry.”

No response.

I considered my options. I could’ve pleaded with him to come out, assumed the womanly role of nurturing and assured him that everything was going to be just fine, not to worry, poochy woochy. Or I could’ve lit a match, slipped it under the closet door and made a run for it. Or I could’ve blockaded him in there. Fed him occasionally.

I did none of this because I didn’t understand yet that life is the very second you’re in. You don’t dick around wasting seconds.

I went downstairs and finished the birthday cake I’d baked for Sam which he hadn’t touched. I yanked out the ten candles that hours before I’d carefully arranged. Consuming slice after slice, I felt sorry for myself for being a mother so wronged, so misunderstood. Then I found myself hoping my husband would die from the cancer, that it would spread up his throat into his brain because this would mean I could sell the house and move to Hawaii. I imagined tropical breezes, ocean spray, rum cocktails. I imagined my boy, rejuvenated by the salt air, running towards me calling Mummy.”

He never hugs me anymore. Never. To think I once had the freedom to hold him whenever I wanted. To think I was that lucky and didn’t know it.

Eventually, Jerry came out of the closet and shuffled downstairs. I took my time telling him, only at the end admitting that the oncologist wasn’t terribly worried about it.

It was after his course of treatment, when he was considered to be in the clear, that he started playing nine holes” with the first one, the neighbour who borrowed the pots and pans. I had the impression he was living life with relish, now that he’d been faced with his own mortality.

Which I can understand. It’s sneaking around I can’t stand. Don’t lie. I hate lies. Politicians who lie should be thrown out of government. Or failing that, shot.

I asked him how he thought Sam felt about his dad screwing the neighbour. He said Sam didn’t know. I said of course he does. He asked if I told him. I said of course not. Children know. They always know. Then I told him to get out. Shouted at him, threatened him with lawyers. We didn’t actually throw things that time. At one point I considered hurling the phallic golf trophy. But he left with little resistance. I think he was relieved. They shacked up for a bit, then she went back to her husband. Maybe he was a better golfer.

I was hurt, of course, self-esteem impaired. It seemed important at the time. Now it’s impossible to comprehend how brain-dead Jerr could’ve had such an effect on me. But life’s like that. You go through these things that seem to tear you apart. Years later you wonder why. Years later you’re going through some other thing that seems to be tearing you apart.

I told Jerry that it was his job to explain his side of the divorce to Sam. He never did. At first, I said lame things like we don’t love each other anymore. But during the divorce proceedings I found myself referring to Sam’s absentee father as anal-retentive, emotionally retarded, small-minded, dick-driven, cheap.

Anyway, this is all ancient history. The point is my son. What happened to my son?

In the courtroom, everybody stares at me. How could she give birth to such a monster? How can she stand it? What did she do to drive him to it?

Well, you know what? I wasn’t even around. I’d actually won a raffle, a weekend pass to a spa. I never win anything, and spas give me the willies strangers slapping oil all over you and squeezing your zits. But I thought, I’ve got to try it, it’s in the country, it’s free, maybe aromatherapy will change my life. I hated it; at one point a taut Chinese woman was rubbing me with rocks. Anyway, I had no idea what my boy was up to, didn’t even hear about it until I came home greased. By this time, Sam had been in an adult jail for twenty-four hours. He’d lied about his age, possibly to protect me but more likely to protect his part-time job as a security guard at my brother-in-law’s hospital. Jerry got the job for him, told him to lie about his age because Jerry got a paper route when he was three or something and believes that all enterprising young men should get jobs and become millionaires by the time they’re twelve. It used to drive him wild when Sam would spend his allowance rather than stash it in his piggy bank.

So I think about that often: If I’d been home, would he have done it? Probably. I don’t keep tabs on him anymore; it’s futile. Which made the whole bail issue terrifying. When the schlep of a duty counsel advised me that we could apply for bail meaning write a huge cheque or post the house I thought, You must be joking, take the killer home? But then he was there, my lost son, looking at his hands, tapping his feet, trembling even though the room wasn’t cold. The duty counsel, awash in sweat, kept removing his lawyer duds, first his jacket, then his vest, tie. Of course we must try for bail, I said. The Crown will oppose it, he advised me. No, really? It was then I called Jerry who contacted the hot-shot criminal lawyer. I was rattling within during the proceeding. We had to sit through what felt like several hundred requests for bail before it was our turn. The whole time I was thinking, Please don’t lock him up, please lock him up. I couldn’t believe any of it was happening, had happened. I didn’t know who my son was anymore, what he could do. Our lawyer was worth his hundreds of dollars, a Houdini eluding the Criminal Code. He made it sound like boys kill people every day, no big whoop, and the poor kid has no criminal record, no motive and no memory of the incident which suggests, if in fact he did commit the crime, he may have been unconscious of his actions and therefore not responsible because he had no knowledge or appreciation of what he was doing. I think the judge let Sam off because he wanted the lawyer to button it so His Honour could proceed to lunch. Then there were papers to sign, a recognizance and a document registered against the title of the house, which was the surety payable should Sam skip town.

But the conditions caused me some sleep deprivation. Every couple of hours, I’d wake and check his room to make sure he hadn’t made a run for it. Days should have been easier as he was expected to attend school, but it was June, exam time, meaning not his regular schedule. I had no way of tracking his movements. I’d ask feebly, Do you have an exam today?” and he would mutter something unintelligible. I’d phone the school, talk to voicemail knowing my call would not be returned because the staff were busy planning their summer vacations. He was subject to a curfew, supposed to be home between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but usually he’d show up those few minutes late; just enough time to cause my heart rate to zoom to three hundred beats per minute. And he was ordered to report to the police every forty-eight hours, which he did, but it was weeks before I stopped phoning the division to ascertain that he’d checked in. Now I never call. He’s a good boy. I think. Or anyway understands that jumping bail is a bad idea.

The thugs-in-blue advised me that I could have him rearrested at any time if I felt it was necessary. They’ve been itching to get their hands on him, the rich kid” with the fancy lawyer.

After the remand hearing, driving home, I asked Sam if he had any idea why he’d done it. He repeated that he didn’t know if he’d done it since he had no memory of the incident. We were in the car, stopped in traffic. There’d been an accident, sirens wailed, a blood-thirsty crowd gathered. We sat in silence although his foot kept tapping.

I have difficulty believing that,” I said finally.

What?” His foot stopped.

That you can’t remember anything.”

He shrugged, resumed tapping, turned on the radio, fiddled with the tuner until he found something obnoxious. He told me if I’d been there, he probably would’ve killed me. He said this without malice. As though killing people was normal, to be expected. Why? He wouldn’t tell me. Over the months since he was charged, we’ve

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