Where the Dog Star Never Glows by Tara L. Masih
Press 53, 2010
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
The seventeen stories in Tara L. Masih's eclectic collection Where the Dog Star Never Glows span the globe in their settings and are peopled with a diverse assortment of unique characters, but they share in common Masih's sparse prose style, one that carries more weight than her light touch may initially suggest, and they all pack the sort of emotional punch that sneaks up on a reader and then lingers some time afterward.
Editor of an acclaimed guide to flash fiction writing, Masih's strength is surprise, the unexpected turn, particularly crucial in shorter stories, but, consistent with her subtle style, the turn that comes in each of these stories is not an abrupt, drop-dead sort of surprise but the kind that allows the reader to participate with the characters in a slow gathering of certainty.
The sweetly poignant but understated ending of the opening story, "The Guide, the Tourist, and the Animal Doctor," is an example of this sort of gentle surprise, where an unlikely object of desire becomes the catalyst for a change in dynamics between a divorced Dominican woman and the patient man she has long kept at a safe emotional distance. The third character from the title, the tourist, plays an unwitting role in facilitating this change.
In the next story, "Champagne Water," it is a pair of tourists, a young American couple hoping to rescue their marriage from the perils of boredom, who are the focus, while the wild Dominican landscape itself functions almost as a third major character. Well, to be precise, the husband hopes for the marriage's rescue, while the wife seems to have already given up the fight, although she's not yet willing to walk away. She meets a local man who ignites her interest and the couple's prospects for reconnection go downhill from there. Even up until the end we do not expect the landscape to work any magic on these two, yet again the surprise comes on gently but powerfully.
Other stories take us to a Montana ghost town resurrected as a tourist trap, an isolated desert community on the Mexican border, the deep woods of Appalachia, a surfers' paradise in Puerto Rico, the foothills of the Himalayas in India, the Netherlands, and back in time to the middle of the last century and the 1960s. In flashbacks, the title story takes us back even further, to a 1920s mining disaster in a Pennsylvania coal town. The characters range from middle-aged men dealing with divorce, young married women unsure of their futures, a lonely teenage girl seeking comfort and identity in random trysts, and lonely men and women of various ages and backgrounds, including a young woman whose own future seems eclipsed by her mother's schizophrenia. All of these time shifts, locales and characters are rendered believably through attention to the intimate details that distinguish them.
These are all stories about human connection and reconnection, reconnection with the closed-off and forgotten places in one's self and connection with other human beings and with the natural world, which Masih observes with a keen eye and attention to detail, often giving it a dynamic role in the story, rather than merely placing it in the background.
In "Suspended," a tree provides protection and solace to a woman trapped in her car after a serious accident, unable to move anything except her head: "Sometimes, the spring winds batter her window and tongue, and the limbs sway and creak, so she sends her mind up above the tree line where she will keep it if gravity wins and the tree grows weary. But the tree loves her too much to drop her and she loves the tree, the window, and the rain that drips over the visor to her waiting mouth."
All but one of these stories end on a note of hope because a connection has been made, and the one that ends bleakly is the one where a chance at a meaningful connection has been refused and a piece of advice not taken because the protagonist cannot extricate its source from the problem itself: "Her smoke has absorbed itself into my hair, and I scream quietly. It's too late for a mother," we read before the final section of "Asylum," involving a plot twist that might be seen as the makings of a happy ending under other circumstances, but we know the character's fate is sealed, at least as far as we and she can see.
These stories are a pleasure to read because of the new places they take us and the new things we learn, such as the Caribbean candy recipes in the collection's closing story, "Delight," as well as the deeper impacts that remain even after the details begin to fade.
Tara L. Masih's fiction, poetry and essays have been published in numerous literary magazines, and her awards include first place in The Ledge's fiction contest, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She is editor of the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009) and is a graduate of Emerson College.