As a reader of novels and not much else, I keep a running list of authorial whims. Male writers of the Roth/Updike generation, for example, love the word cunt. Also, where novelists once adorned their prose with offhand French bon mots, Spanish now appears. Here’s another: Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance. I’ve seen it happen across the spectrum—Jackie Collins, William Faulkner, and Chuck Palahniuk: “There was no more rain, just an eerie stillness, a deathly silence. Somewhere a dog barked mournfully.” (American Star) “She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow sad, faraway.” (Light in August) “This is such a fine neighborhood. I jump the fence to the next backyard and land on my head in somebody’s rose bush. Somewhere a dog’s barking.” (Choke)
Having heard the dog’s call, it seemed like I couldn’t find a book without one. Not The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Not Shadow Country. Not Ulysses. Not Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, or Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue, or Stephen King’s Itor Christine. Not Jodi Picoult’s House Rules. If novelists share anything, it’s a distant-dog impulse. Picture an author at work: She’s exhausted, gazing at her laptop and dreaming about lunch. “[Author typing.] Boyd slammed the car door shut. He stared at his new condominium, with the for-sale sign in the yard. He picked up a pistol and pointed it at his head. [Author thinking, Now what? Gotta buy time.] Somewhere a dog barked. [Author thinking, Hmm, that’ll do.] Then Boyd remembered he did qualify for the tax rebate for first-time home buyers, and put down the gun.”If a novel is an archeological record of 4.54 billion decisions, then maybe distant barking dogs are its fossils, evidence of the novelist working out an idea.
Trains whistle, breezes blow, dogs bark. You’re thinking, “So what if novels are full of barking dogs? The world is full of them, too.” But I don’t find it curious when actual dogs turn up in novels. Dogs that authors bother to describe, or turn into characters, don’t pull me out of my reading trance. The thing is, these so-called dogs are nameless and faceless, and frankly I doubt them; it’s the curious incident when one actually does come into view. Really, are there so many out-of-sight, noisy dogs in the world? Listen: My bet is you’ll hear a highway, an A/C unit, or another human before a dog starts yelping.
Literary barking dogs come in two breeds. First is the classic, “A dog barks in the distance.” Modern, unassuming, lacking airs. Some authors use it well. In Cities of the Red Night, William Burroughsemploys it to make sex more comical: “A dog barks in the distance. We take off our shirts and pants and hang them on wooden pegs. He turns towards me, his shorts sticking out at the fly. ‘That stuff makes me hot,’ he says. ‘Shall we camel?’ ” In Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, a distant dog offers an opportunity for lyricism: “It was too hot to walk. A dog barked, barked, barked down in the hollow. The liquid shadows went over the plain.” And in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when Dave Eggers’ narrator is driven mad while trying to help a friend who may have overdosed on pills, a bit of projection helps amplify his distress: “There is a dog barking outside. The dog is going nuts.”
The other common breed is “Somewhere a dog barks.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the phrase is terror’s church bell. It’s also an auditory motif that evolves, as “Somewhere a big dog is barking” gives way to “With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.” And it works. It works because it’s deliberate.
Most authors, however, employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time; since the bark is hollow, a reader can read anything into it, or nothing at all. Charlaine Harris, queen of the vampire authors, in Dead as a Doornail: “The entire parking lot was empty, except for Jan’s car. The glare of the security lights made the shadows deeper. I heard a dog bark way off in the distance.” The chief of Scandinavian crime writers, Henning Mankell: “She begins to tell him. The curtain in the kitchen window flutters gently, and a dog barks in the distance” (The Eye of the Leopard). And “genre” books aren’t the only guilty category. Take 2666, Robert Bolaño’smagnum opus: “The window looked out over the garden, which was still lit. A scent of flowers and wet grass drifted into the room. In the distance he heard a dog bark.” For all we know, these dogs are off-camera sound machines set to woof.
When confronted with an uninspiring unseen bark, I like to pretend the dog is Lassie’s cousin, bearing a message.
Richard Ford, Independence Day: “From the linden tree shade, Kristy hears something in the afternoon breeze—a dog barking somewhere, my son in our car. She turns and looks toward me, puzzled.”
Translation: Watch out, the boy is reprogramming your favorite FM stations!Tobias Wolff, Old School: “During our worst dreams we are assured by a dog barking somewhere, a refrigerator motor kicking on, that we will soon wake to true life.”
Translation: No transcendence until you get the fridge fixed!T.C. Boyle, Riven Rock: “In two days he’d be back on the train to New Jersey. There was a dog barking somewhere. He could smell beef and gravy on her breath.”
Translation: That bitch just ate my liver!
These howls are empty and cheap—and I’ll float the opinion that publishers should collar them. Imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor had let slip, “It was dark now, and as we dipped under a little bridge I put my arm around Jordan’s golden shoulder and drew her toward me and asked her to dinner. Somewhere a dog barked. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more, but of this clean, hard, limited person. …”
Unless the disembodied barks aren’t sloppy mistakes. Unless, in fact, they serve a deeper, more conspiratorial purpose. Martin Amis says, “All writing is a campaign against cliché.” Well, what if these dogs aren’t just cliché, but something more? What if they’re a meme? Perhaps distant dogs are a way for novelists to wink at one another, at their extraordinary luck for being allowed into the publishing club. When an author incorporates a faceless barking dog into his novel, he’s like an amateur at Harlem’s Apollo Theater rubbing the Tree of Hope—he does it because so many others have done it before him, and it might just bring him some luck. Look at (Pulitzer Prize-winning) To Kill a Mockingbird: “Ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs.” Look at (National Book Award winner) Let The Great World Spin: “The street throbbed around me. Nobody’s fault but my own. The bark of a dog flew by.” Indeed, look at Martin Amis in his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow: “Keith closed his eyes and searched for troubled dreams. The dogs in the valley barked. And the dogs in the village, not to be outdone, barked back.”
I saw my friend Nic Brown last week, whose first novel, like mine (You Lost Me There), is being published this summer. (Nic’s book, Doubles, is hysterically funny). I asked Nic if he’d joined the grand tradition by including either “A dog barks in the distance” or “Somewhere a dog barks.” I explained how, in fact, I’d done so myself—unconsciously, in an early draft—but decided to leave it in, partially to test my theory but mostly because it’s contextual to a sex scene involving other canine behavior. Nic looked at me like I was nuts. “Dude, what are you talking about?” He said he doubted it—it sounded awfully cliché. We played tennis, then parted ways. An hour later Nic sent me an e-mail: “You won’t believe this. Doubles, Page 108: ‘Somewhere a dog barked, and it awakened me to my own physical condition.’ But the dog then appears a few lines later, so he does exist.” That’s all I ask.
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