Re-reading “The Dog Star”

The Dog Star, a novel written by Donald Windham and published in 1950, follows a bleak protagonist through the mid-century Deep South. Blackie Pride is a fifteen-year-old boy living in Depression-era Atlanta whose disaffected attitude toward everything around him lies somewhere between JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Albert Camus’ Meursault. He is a Southern existential anti-hero, one who predates Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling by more than a decade.

I read The Dog Star ten or fifteen years ago at the urging of a friend, who was a fellow editor with very modern and usually impeccable taste. (This same friend turned me on to Dennis Cooper‘s George Myles Cycle, to Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, and to Iceberg Slim.) With his recommendation and an undeniably great title, The Dog Star – which as a Gen X-er reminded me of the Mother Love Bone song, “Stardog Champion” – I couldn’t resist. And in the spirit of truly dedicated readers everywhere, I stumbled across my copy on a dusty, cluttered shelf recently and decided to read it again.

As the novel begins, Blackie is walking out of reform school, of his own volition, holding the guitar that his friend Whitey Maddox has given him. Whitey has just committed suicide in the second-floor isolation room the day before. Blackie hitches a ride on a flatbed truck then attempts to re-place himself right back into his old life and habits— but it won’t work. He is not the same after knowing Whitey.

In the earliest chapters, we immediately suspect that something homoerotic was going on between the angry teenager and his dead friend. Blackie recounts fondly – for his reader, though not for his family or friends – how he and Whitey used to skip out on work detail, swim in a wooded creek, and lie naked together in the sun. He apprises us that Whitey was tough and distant and wanted nothing to do with anyone— except Blackie. Made to feel special by the attention of this loner-rebel – who smacks of Alain-Fournier’s anti-hero Augustin Meaulnes, too – Blackie becomes . . . let’s call it obsessed.

However, we have to ask ourselves whether Blackie is gay at all. Big and muscular, Blackie is mannish compared to the brothers Dusty and Hatchet, his friends who also hang out in the local parks, and he was sent to reform school after a series of incidents involving a girl in the neighborhood. On his first day back in town, he meets and sleeps with a young married woman named Mabel and soon returns to her for a few weeks of daily sex in her hotel room. Yet, unable to reconcile his confused feelings with his new relationship, Blackie is a pretty pitiful boyfriend.

After trying to ruin his relationship with Mabel, Blackie starts trying to ruin his relationships with his grown sister Pearl and his mother. Mabel had come to Pearl’s house looking for Blackie, and Pearl warned him not to get in over his head. Blackie doesn’t take the advice well. Soon after that, he gets into it with his mother over him quitting his menial job and over his indifference to his sister Gladys’ sketchy pre-teen behavior.

However, Windham wants us to see Blackie Pride as something more than a lazy dullard. This is where he becomes much more like Holden Caulfield, a character who didn’t appear until a year later in 1951. About Blackie having quit his job, Windham writes,

The job was endless but not fascinating. There was no climax or satisfaction. Until five o’clock it took his energy, but when he was off for the day there were four hours of light during which he was restless and dissatisfied. There was nothing to do of enough interest to make him forget himself. [ . . . ] He would have given up his life gladly to any cause that enlisted him and demanded that he give his all. He was bored and he wanted excitement.

And about Blackie’s disaffected treatment of his lover, mother, and siblings, Windham writes this über-introverted explanation:

Everything he had done lately had seemed to go wrong. He did just what he wanted to do, yet somehow his actions seemed different when they were reflected in other people. He looked the way he wanted to in his own eyes, but Mother and Pearl and [his brother] Caleb gave back a different impression from that which he had of himself. This made him angry, but his anger did not change their impressions. He knew that his idea of himself was the right one, that it was what he wanted to be. But the failing of others to see him as he saw himself angered him into suspecting that something of which he was unaware was wrong.

The thing that everyone else sees, Blackie can’t: he is being an asshole. Yet Blackie can’t see that because he’s damaged, heartbroken by Whitey’s suicide, which he can’t comprehend. Not only has his hero been knocked off the pedestal, Whitey knocked himself off, leaving Blackie with no chance for asking questions. Blackie’s response is to internalize the dead boy’s posturing as an homage: Nothing can hurt you if you don’t let anything get close. Rather than recognizing Whitey as a failed ideal, Blackie embraces it out of reactionary stubbornness. It’s as teenage as teenage can get.

For much of the novel, Blackie has his way, doing whatever he pleases, never facing more than a verbal reproach, but that can’t go on forever. As the story wanes, he tries to buy a used 1927 Ford by only paying a forty-dollar down payment (intending to skip out on the rest), but that fails when the seller raises the required down payment to fifty. Shortly thereafter, he tries to finagle the other ten dollars by snitching on his friends, but is rebuked by their potential victim. Then he gets beat up in an alley by a group of boys whose faces he never sees. Like all unrealistic fantasies conjured up by naive young men who don’t want to face adult responsibilities, Blackie’s plan is unraveled by real life.

By the end of the novel, we get a tiny smidgen of understanding about what has happened to set Blackie off. During a “date” with his sister Gladys to a party his mother tells him he has to attend with her, Blackie’s memory is sparked and he recollects the circumstances of Whitey’s demise. The “fatassed kid” at the reform school had touched Whitey’s guitar and Blackie attacked him for it; the kid then told on him, and the consequence would be to separate Blackie and Whitey, putting them in different dorms, disallowing contact between them. A distraught Whitey freaked out and killed himself, an action that reinforces that there was something more than friendship between the boys.

The author of The Dog Star, Donald Windham, is far less famous than his literary friends, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And though The Dog Star is a pretty good novel, the fact that it falls short of the fame achieved by To Kill A Mockingbird, for example, isn’t surprising. If the South wasn’t ready in 1960 to deal with unjust lynchings and the deadly comeuppance of poor white trash, it surely wasn’t ready in 1950 to deal with the perverted logic of a suicidal possibly-homosexual teenage delinquent. Blackie Pride would never have been a crowd favorite.

As for the novel’s quality, I kind of agree with the assessment of a 2004 review in Oyster Boy Review:

For its reissue, Hill Street applies a different spin, haling The Dog Star as, “a landmark classic of southern literature.” It’s not. [ . . . ] The gender dynamics of the novel are equally atypical of regional southern fiction and bear a closer resemblance to pulp fiction of the “hard-boiled” variety.

Though Windham’s novel is Southern, the adjective “atypical” fits. The Dog Star will never make a top-ten list graced by the other mid-century Southern novels that get the most traction from reading groups and on course syllabi. Its anomalous quality, though, it what makes it interesting.

That reviewer for the Oyster Boy Review also brought up something about the novel that bears repeating in closure. The novel apparently “earned the praise of Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, and Messrs. Gide and Camus.” Though that OBR review ends by expressing “satisfaction” at Blackie’s suicide, a host of European greats found the same praiseworthy qualities that I found. In my reading, I never wanted to glamorize Blackie at all. He reminded me of the dour, confused, sometimes-violent boys that I knew when I was growing up in the Deep South six decades later, boys whose agitated, reprobate behavior was spurred not so much by immorality as by a desolate realization that life won’t have much to offer them. No, suicide isn’t “something some people DESERVE.” It is an unfortunate conclusion that some young people choose over the realities of living an “endless but not fascinating” life.

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