Review: ‘The Dog’ by Jack Livings

Jack Livings, in his debut collection of short stories The Dog, accomplishes for contemporary China what Eudora Welty did for the American South, Gabriel Garcia Marquez did for Colombia, and Cormac McCarthy did for Mexico. His prose is riveting, painting breathtaking images and rendering human emotions in their most authentic, unfiltered state. Shown through the eyes of a middle-aged housewife struggling against the expectations of her husband and society at large, an exasperated factory owner crumbling under the pressures of communism, a lost-for-love foreign exchange student caught in the midst of a violent strike, and many others—these stories portray a China you’ve never known.

Livings’ accessible language, unvarnished portrayals of the human condition, and compelling sense of conflict among his characters will pull you from page to page effortlessly. In “The Pocketbook,” Livings’ depictions of a homeless child-turned-plunderer are both harrowing and elegant:

She never saw the purse snatcher, though she was as obvious to him as a cinder block dropped into a pond. He was a pro, a shadow of a boy who existed between pauses in conversation, clinging to the underside of memory like a fly. She would have felt a dead weight in her chest if she had seen him. His hair fell in heavy ropes over his face, which was brown as old leaves and crossed with amber scars. Ten years old, he was wastewater wrung from the sponge of the world.

And masterful moments of literary expression such as these are found throughout the book.

Jack Livings both studied and taught in China during the ’90s, and it is clear that his observations and experiences have made their ways onto the page, transpiring in gut-wrenching details and immersive dialogue that draw the reader into the world of these distinctive characters. Livings’ debut collection of short stories recently won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, a $25,000 award aimed at assisting authors in their completion of a second work of literary fiction.

The Dog is both immensely enjoyable and mindblowingly fascinating and should be atop anyone’s list of books to read in the very, very near future. The collection of short stories is available in both print and digital versions from these retailers: iTunesBarnes & Noble, AmazonIndieBound, and Powell’s Books.

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