The Dust Holds Mystery in “Dog on Fire”

About 3,000 years ago, according to at least one geologist, a meteorite slammed into an area in what is now central Nebraska to create a shallow crater about one mile wide. The resulting depression, or one like it, plays a central role in Terese Svoboda’s newest novel, Dog on Fire, set in the Great Plains. It is an apt metaphor for the prevailing psychological state of a rural community and, in particular, the family of the story’s primary narrator.

That narrator is a woman, recently divorced from an abusive husband, who has returned with her teenaged son to her parents’ farm. Both of her parents — her conspiracy theory-believing father and her alcoholic mother — are cold and distant to her, and she hopes her stay with them will be brief. In the meantime, however, there is the mystery of her brother’s death to solve. The brother, whom the woman’s son eerily resembles, was a bundle of quirky characteristics: epileptic, exposed to radiation in the Army, a victim of electrocution, employed as a digger and lover of an obese woman who was and still is obsessed with him.

The brother’s lover, Aphra, is the only character in the novel given a name. It is likely a deliberate choice, as it is a name of Hebrew origin meaning “dust,” and the opening of the novel finds the narrator struggling to drive through a dust storm in which she thinks she sees her dead brother.

“How do I know it’s him I’ve seen?” she narrates. “Only my brother would dig beside the road in this dust, because he is a digger.” Later, thinking of her brother, she notes, “His lifelines are dust.”

All other characters are designated by relationships — her father, mother, son, brother, ex-husband — or with appellations such as the “Shove-it boys” to refer to a group of town bullies who tormented the brother and, apparently, sold drugs to Aphra. We learn part of the story from Aphra’s point of view in which her own woes — having been sexually abused by her father and despised by her mother for having sent the father to jail — are revealed. We also come to understand her love for the primary narrator’s brother, as he was perhaps the only person, certainly the only man, to treat her with respect.

While the suffering of these two women connects them, the novel ultimately is about the primary narrator’s attempt to understand her brother and the reason for his death. Do aliens play a role, as her father hypothesizes? Or the radioactivity her brother handled in the Army? Or, as she suspects, did Aphra have something to do with it?

This lead narrator dwells on the fact that she didn’t know her brother as well as she should have, something she now regrets, and she ponders his occupation as a digger. In a passage that illustrates the author’s unique style as well as the recurring image of the grave, we get a portrait of him: “He looked like someone who’d dug. Gray was his color, with a shine that rocks get a second after they’re spit on. He was a rock that had been spit on — shiny enough but frozen good and gray in life, with the dates already cut into him.”

She also remembers him when they were children: “[H]e was the boy whose hand I held first, falling to the ground in a spell whenever and wherever, then forgetting me so easily, his eyes rolled up in white-out, babbling . . . He usually didn’t know who I was until after he recovered, at least not for a minute . . . When he spoke after a spell, it was slow, a gradual drift onto what needed saying and then all at once too much of it, talk that ran on like a fear, into dark muttered corners and then silence. A spell.”

The mystery at the heart of Dog on Fire is compelling, but the real pleasure of the reading experience is Svoboda’s punctuated lyricism, sentences and paragraphs that engulf the reader like the dust storm with which the novel begins.

Dog on Fire
By Terese Svoboda
University of Nebraska Press
Published March 7, 2023