Rebel Without Paws


Arthur Bradford’s first book, a collection of first-person short stories called Dogwalker, is teeming with damaged dogs. Aside from the three-legged mutts that feature in several tales, there’s a puppy killed by a falling radio, a pair of strays hit by a train, and even a man who’s bitten on the leg and turns into a dog. Bradford’s also fond of damaged humans—not just the dented souls and accident victims of Dogwalker, but the stars of his forthcoming movie, How’s Your News?, an unexpectedly charming documentary about severely disabled adults turned video reporters.

He offsets his stories’ grotesqueries with a uniformly flat, dry, slightly awkward, slightly amused tone—it’s no accident that Dogwalker takes its epigraph from Richard Linklater’s Slacker. “The House of Alan Matthews,” for instance, is a deadpan Poe parody: The narrator goes over to a dealer’s apartment to buy some hash and discovers that there’s a man locked in the closet, banging on the door and furious. A few days later, he goes back, and the dealer’s let the guy out. So much for dramatic tension. Sometimes there’s a mock-heroic flight of rhetoric at the end (inspired by Denis Johnson, Bradford says), as with the snowfall in “South for the Winter”: “They were enormous, the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen in my life. I could have built myself an igloo out of each one of them.”

Bradford is an inveterate tinkerer—parts of Dogwalker changed drastically between the review galleys and the final version. He alters his stories again for live readings, usually playing guitar along with them. “Little Rodney” was written specifically to let him smash a guitar when he read it aloud (the narrator’s bludgeoning a snake he thinks has swallowed, you guessed it, a three-legged dog). Its first issued incarnation, in the most recent issue of McSweeney’s, has a totally different ending on the printed page from in the accompanying CD reading.

The implication is that there’s no definitive version—not even a definitive plot. In its most striking moments, Bradford’s fiction envisions a world where anything can happen or can have happened, because all things and events have equal weight. As a collection, Dogwalker is unified by its fixations—its narrators often seem to be telling the same story in different ways, or caught up in a convenient invention that in turn forces them to make the rest of their story consistent with it. The overlaps and inconsistencies are part of the point, although sometimes they simply come off as Bradford repeating himself. The speakers are “always different versions of the same person,” he says, “and kind of an imagined reality for myself.” The key word here is imagined: This is not the usual young fiction writer’s shabbily disguised memoir, unless Bradford’s been hanging out with cat-faced families, Siamese-triplet puppies, and 10-pound mutant slugs that live in glove compartments.

Still, he’s almost apologetic about his inventions. “I feel like the book gets weakest when it goes into things I don’t know much about,” he says, but it’d be more correct to say when he starts blatantly bullshitting. “Dogs” starts with the narrator’s affair with his girlfriend’s dog (this is not strictly autobiographical, Bradford confirms), who then bears a litter of puppies and a homunculus. This is about as far as the fantasy holds up; then the little man goes on to get a woman in an iron lung pregnant, and she gives birth to puppies, and then one of them impregnates a human woman, and all right already. But a little passage about feeding the iron-lung woman some yogurt, “making sure to wipe her chin clean with a napkin every few bites,” breathes life into the self-consciously weird pregnancies-and-puppies stuff around it. He knows how damaged bodies need to be cared for.

In a few stories, Bradford’s narrator mentions having worked at the Texas School for the Blind, which he’s also done in real life. Since the early ’90s, he’s also taught a video production class at Camp Jabberwocky, a summer retreat for mentally and physically disabled children and adults. A series of short videos he made about the campers circulated through the underground, and caught the attention of South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. With their financial support, a coast-to-coast road trip with five campers became the hour-and-a-half-long How’s Your News?, which will be shown this fall as part of HBO’s Frame by Frame festival, and also at the Screening Room.

Transplanted from fiction to film reportage, Bradford’s fascination with injury and grotesque images could be icky or mean-spirited; his achievement is that it isn’t. A short story about a “Chainsaw Apple” routine that goes awry is played for giggles and gets away with it, but film footage of a man with severe cerebral palsy spasming in his wheelchair as he tries to conduct a man-in-the-street interview sounds like it could be horrible. In fact, it’s strangely affectionate: The disabled “reporters” in How’s Your News? are clearly having the time of their lives, and the camera loves them back.

He’s careful not to make it explicit, but the subtext of both Bradford’s movie and his fiction is tender to the point of sentimentality—several of Dogwalker‘s stories end with couples walking off hand in hand or arm in arm, and one closes with, no kidding, six puppies parading in from the cold on Christmas Day. The repetitive obsessions, twisted bodies, and flatly disengaged voice of his work cover for the softheartedness at its center.