Post Road Magazine #30

Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys

Adrienne Celt

One of my dearest wishes is to be taken in by a band of misfits and turn them into a fierce new family. Doesn't everyone want this? To be marooned in space or lost on a desert island; to work with a small, dysfunctional group until you come, one day, to love them? I want this life like I want to be hugged. Like I want someone to gather me in their arms and whisper in my ear: You belong here. It comforts me to think that, no matter how utterly strange we may seem to one another at first glance, at least our shared loneliness can bring us together.

The collection of friends and allies is important in fiction, too. Specifically, in Joseph Campbell's archetypal Hero's Journey. It goes like this: pluck someone out of their ordinary world and send them (against their better judgment) on a quest. Sooner or later, they'll have to team up with some inexplicably loyal strangers in order to accomplish their aims-and as a bonus, these companions will probably offer a few minor story arcs along the way. (Ex: Hero + Friend 1 = Love? Friend 1 + Friend 2 = Betrayal?)

The trouble is, in real life it's harder to tell who the hero is; none of us wants to be the sidekick. And that means we're all fighting to make our own needs the center of the story, whether or not they conflict with someone else's. How can we ever bring home the golden cup if we can't agree what it looks like, or who it belongs to? Do we even want the cup? Maybe we want some nice new end tables. Maybe we just want to be left alone.

One of the things I love about Helen Humphreys's novel Wild Dogs is the unwillingness with which the protagonist, Alice, allows herself to become part of a group; she understands, implicitly, that partnerships are not neat, and stories don't always end well. A heartbroken, self-styled loner, she works as the sole attendant of a gas station and commutes to her job on a motorcycle, so she can't even offer anyone else a ride. (Or at least, if she did, it would be awfully hard to have a conversation with them en route.) Nonetheless, Alice is drawn to the edge of the forest each night along with a group of strangers: her dog, like theirs, has ended up in a pack of loyal hearts gone feral, and the abandoned humans wait at sundown to see if their dogs will emerge and run by. "Love is like those wild dogs," she says in the novel's opening:

If it hunts you down it will not let you go. And what you can never know from the beginning is how hard or how long you will love something; how even when it has gone the love you felt will still chase you down, loping like dark flame through your blood.

For Alice, love is dangerous, and I appreciate the way she hesitates to be drawn into it. We need allies. We need companionship. But if we were able to examine passion with a cold and dispassionate eye, we would see that it isn't a solution to anything. It's a new set of complications, waiting to bloom. A lifelong struggle, waiting to put down roots in our heart.

Alice's experiences mirror my own understanding of the Friends & Allies equation: that it's far from simple. But for all that, she's not a closed-off person; indeed, Alice forms several close bonds throughout the course of the book, and through her, Humphreys is able to show off a keen eye for human intimacy, as well as a lyrical sensibility. Alice's love for the world is palpable even when human beings resist her: there is always the mist on the morning road. There are always the trees for the dogs to run through. And the possibility of something more.

I know now that you will leave me. I know that I will always love you. I know that I cannot be saved, and neither can Jamie, and neither can you. We will go on, alone, into a space we once defined together. I know that the world in which we existed will not remember us at all. I know that this can never be that, that faith isn't belief but struggle with belief.

Most fictional misfit bands are light-hearted, bordering on the comical. For their members, nothing really changes despite their weekly adventures, and everything comes out right in the end. Humphreys's novel is close to my heart, because it offers up the same sort of exquisite bond-but one that is permeable and impermanent. And, for all that, no less meaningful.

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