“Howl Palace” began with a real dog….
I tried to write about her for years, with little success, but I kept putting her in the wrong situations. Only when I started thinking about the women in Alaska I knew who had married and divorced multiple times (not an uncommon situation , considering the skewed ratio of males to females in Alaska), women I cared about and loved, did I find a way to talk about her. Initially I had put her in the center of the now defunct stories. As the prime mover. But once she was off to the side, raising havoc – and renamed Pinky – I could explore the characters I was most interested in getting to know.
Leigh Newman, Contributor Note
When you read a lot, you find stories you’re reading remind you of other stories you’ve read. Not necessarioy overall, but in certain ways. This story reminded me in a very general way of Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”: quirky characters defined by their place and their history. It reminds me structurally of “Ralph the Duck” by Frederick Busch: a subtly humorous interaction among characters that is greatly deepened by the revelation of a long-ago tragedy towards the end of the story.
I’m also reminded of some thoughts Jim Harris had about Emma Cline’s “The Nanny” a few weeks ago about the very technique of revealing something towards the end of a story that changes everything that was read before.
Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.
Jim Harris, blog post at Auxiliary Memory
I happen to like it when I suddenly find out something unexpected late in a story, something that makes me rethink everything I’ve been deciding all along. To a large degree this is personal preference, but it also depends on the story, on the shift that happens. In “The Nanny,” we were kind of at sixes and sevens without information; the delayed reveal was more of a suspense element. In this story, delay has a different effect. From the start we build our view of Dutch, of her relationship with Carl, and of the ambivalence she feel about selling her house. It seems like a fun little story, with familiar feelings running through it, until we find out what’s beneath the goofy surface. The new information doesn’t fill in gaps: it changes our reading. It’s the emotional equivalent of The Sixth Sense. That’s why I find it so much more effective in this story – and in Busch’s – than in Cline’s. Reading the last quarter of this story made me want to go back and read the story again, not to understand what was going on, but because it was now a different story with different nuances.
Dutch’s plan to sell her house forms the narrative backbone of the story, and gives Newman a framework on which to hang all the interwoven plot points. Each point, deftly balances humor and tragedy, giving greater impact to both. Humor has all kinds of restorative functions: it can relieve emotional pain, defuse situational tension, and provide temporary distance while one adjusts to a grim reality. In a story, it can entertain us, connect us to the characters, lay a foundation on which complex lives – which include both humor and tragedy, as well as drudgery, excitement, hope, despair, and all the other contradictory pairs of human experiences – are built.
Ambivalence about selling a house is common enough. Dutch breaks out enough cookout food for a couple of hundred people: fifty pounds of caribou, forty moose dogs, forty-five avocados for guac. I don’t know if that many people show up for an open house or if she’s inviting everyone in a ten-mile radius (which, given it’s rural Alaska, might not be that many), but it seems comical to me. And this becomes the setup for the dog.
Dog? What dog? The dog Carl shows up with. Carl, the man who got away, but not very far.
As Carl told me long ago, “inside you hides a soft, secret pink balloon of dreams.” He wasn’t incorrect, but the balloon has withered a little over the years.
We think he’s just the lost love, until we find out the real loss is yet to come. The pink balloon is the enduring image of the story, but not just metaphorically: he brings a black lab he named Pinky for Dutch, who doesn’t really want another dog. But that plays into more story as well. It’s the kind of plotting I like, where every element feeds into another element, so nothing can be taken away without collapsing the story.
The Clamshell Grotto might just be for fun (there’s a subtle sexual element as well) but it’s the Wolf Room that Newman makes the most of. The house itself was named Howl Palace by a neighborhood child after she saw the Wolf Room. We don’t really know what the Wolf Room is until we see it through Dutch’s need for mental quiet, and then it’s a combination of weird (emphasized by the open-house participants viewing their potential purchase) and sad (since we now have some idea of why the Palace is Howling). There’s a unique sensation to howling: part song, part threat, anger, beauty, fear, loneliness. This image of Dutch finding quiet in that room is so counterintuitive, it’s funny – Cry like a rainstorm, howl like the wind, in a quiet fur-lined windowless room. The combination of softness and savagery, the happy memories that live nestled up to the tragic ones.
And there was no way to explain what I wanted, which was everything the way it was before, years before. Neighbors in the backyard. Charcoal smoke. Bug dope. A watermelon. People showing up with a casserole, leaving with their laughter and wet hair after a dip in the hot tub. Whatever my private upheavals, there was always that, at least. A duck paddled past my duck, blown over by the current that was ruffling the surface. I missed wind socks. Everybody on Diamond Lake used to have a rainbow wind sock tide to their deck. It added a cheerful note to the shoreline.
The dog’s disruption of the cookout could just be a hilarious mess, what with Silver, the real estate agent, trying to snatch normalcy from chaos.
Outside, at the far end of the dock, Donald went on tossing out his rope, calling across the water, “Here, Pinky. Even before the open house was officially open, people were pulling into the driveway, clutching phones. Silver had hosed down the backyard and sprinkled baking soda all over the grass. There was nothing left to do, she said, but hope for the best. One of her ways of hoping was to stick Donald down on the dock with his rib and his rope, where he would look like an imaginative, playful boy. Calling to his dog. Possibly homeschooled…..
“Here, Pinky,” his voice squeaky with anticipation, his casts surprisingly sure-handed.
Pinky, I almost told him, was long past coming to anybody.
He cast again. And cast again. “Pinky!” He said, unable even now to give up.
And of course it’s more than that. It’s how life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And if Dutch never gives up on her pink balloon, save for the occasional retreat to the Wolf Room, more power to her.
* * *
Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every year, there’s an entry in Best American Short Stories that breaks some cardinal rule of narrative, and in a lot of ways, these are some of the most interesting stories to read. “Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman breaks a couple of rules, all in the last few pages of the story.”
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