Back in late July, Michiko Kakutani gave a first book of fiction the sort of review authors rarely receive. It was an unqualified rave of Jack Livings’ story collection, The Dog (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; 240 pages). “With ‘The Dog’,” Kakutani concluded, “Mr. Livings has made an incisive—and highly impressive—debut.” One could go even further. With The Dog, and its eight brilliantly told stories set in contemporary China, Jack Livings has delivered one of the best books of 2014—if not the best debut work of fiction by an American writer this year.
Much as Ken Kalfus did with Russian society in his story collection Pu-239, or the legendary B. Traven’s accomplished with Mexico in The Night Visitor and Other Stories, The Dog immerses itself into a “foreign” culture and unassumingly but palpably renders it for the distant reader (i.e., the average American). Whatever perception of otherness the reader might have held is torn down. In its place appears a deep recognition of these myriad characters whose anxieties and fears, accomplishments and failures, injustices suffered and resiliencies displayed all speak directly to us. We gladly inhabit these often comic, often tragic lives.
In the title story, a beleaguered Beijing man, who incinerates bodies for a living, is summoned home by his cunning and boorish business partner, who also happens to be family. In “The Heir,” a rebellious grandson and the opportunistic cops of the Public Security Bureau pique Omar, a Uyghur crime boss of dead-eye ruthlessness: “Once, a Kazakh had brushed against Omar’s wife in the market. The man apologized profusely, prostrating himself, delivering gifts in the following days. It’s nothing, Omar had said. He waited ten years to pour hot lead down the Kazakh’s throat.”
Elsewhere in The Dog, the same desperation irradiating U.S. newsrooms infects the staff at the Guangzhou Post in “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” a funny, salty tale that culminates in the moral reckoning of a veteran newsman: “He’d nearly frozen to death chasing the Panchen Lama on his exodus across the mountains of Nepal. He’d roasted in the sun for weeks at Lop Nur waiting for a subterranean nuclear test. He could have stayed in the newsroom, pulled the Xinhua file off the telex and punched up the copy, but he’d insisted on being there in person to feel the ground tremble. It mattered to him to witness the story. What had that all come to?”