Duncan B. Barlow, Master of Unsettling Literature

‘A Dog Between Us’ is His Most Relatable and Most Disturbing Book Yet

Duncan B. Barlow wants his readers to react viscerally, sometimes to revulsion, if at all possible. But it’s not a new trend for him. Barlow spent a couple of decades in the punk-rock scene, most notably with By The Grace of God and through his solo work as D. Biddle. As the publisher of Astrophil Press, he was a particularly vocal champion of surrealist horror writers like Brian Evenson and Matt Bell. If you like those guys, then you know what to expect from Barlow’s work.  In Barlow’s new book, A Dog Between Us, he continues to be champion of unsettling literature.

Barlow often revels in hallucinatory imagery and grotesqueries. He devoted his previous works, most notably Super Cell Anemia, to unnerving the reader. But his new book looks to affect us more intimately, showing us horrors from our actual lives. Super Cell Anemia and The City, Awake both feel like the work of a provocateur. A Dog Between Us feels like a personal reckoning, tying together those often gruesome prior stories with absurdities that ordinary people face.

A Dog Between Us revolves around Crag, a writer who’s alternately mourning and caring for his father while spiraling through a doomed relationship with Emma, a former lover who has circled back into his life. Barlow uses the conventions of grief and pain as the structural basis of the book. It’s something of a fool’s task to try and lay the book into an exact chronological order. We know at the very beginning that Crag’s father has died. But we spend the next hundred pages watching him die in pieces, in fits and starts, while Crag finds diminishing amounts of solace in Emma in alternating chapters.

What we learn about Emma starts out understandable and reasonable, but we know something is wrong. A particular madness, inherited from her mother, lingers in her bloodstream. Their relationship begins with them finding comfort together, laying very literally with a dog between them, but Barlow has filled everything in this book is with intended resonance, deep foreshadowing, and linguistic punch. When Crag sees a dog that’s nurtured dozens of puppies over the years, he’s ashamed of having brushed over her elongated nipples, alarmed by the extraordinary amount of dogs this creature created and borne.

Barlow tosses in a ghastly story involving Emma’s mother and addiction so off-handedly that it feels at first like a garish afterthought, but reveals something deeper. By the end of the novel, more lives will have ended, and much more grieving will take place. We watch a man die and we watch a relationship curdle.

He uses language that wants to disgust. Skin hangs, droops, goes taut, stretches. It is alternatingly oily, wet, dry, shiny. Everyone is made of bones, and flesh. A lover’s scent is “garlic turned steel,” while a father’s belly sags over his genitals. Barlow’s sentences punch with quick, short jabs that aim for impact, building over a paragraph to something large, significant, affecting, and tangible.

“Language, at least that is what it was meant to be. The click and hiss and oh. But it was sound. Nothing hitting the ear quite right. A mouth hitting the drum on an off rhythm. In the fold of the ear. Hairs and bones. Small, small, small. My skin tingled. Eyes swelled. The skin tightening. Wrinkles smoothing, perhaps. I forgot about the other person in the room. About the television. About the dog nuzzled into my armpit. My muscles contracted. Legs straightened. The light became bearable. The weight of breath impossible.”

A Dog Between Us is about loss, but it is also has a kind of acceptance, gratitude and beauty. When Crag’s father is himself, he’s funny and charming. He shows love to his son in ways absurd and realistic. When Emma is kind, she’s welcoming and warm. And then everything falls apart.

Does all of this sound like a recommendation? Because it is one. I don’t know if you should bring A Dog Between Us to the beach. It’s not a jaunty read for a single afternoon. But it is a book that should be read because it says something significant about grief and how we go through it, awkwardly, with no small amount of disgust and shame. And that’s okay. That’s how grief sometimes works.

Rob Bowman

Rob Bowman is a teacher and writer as well as the cohost of the Reel Disagreement podcast. He is the former fiction editor of and regular contributor to The Donnybrook Writing Academy. He has been a guest and lecturer at a couple universities that didn't know any better. He is working on two new novels, one of which someone might actually like.

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