217 Pound Dog
by Arthur Bradford
Issue #83 • November 10, 2006•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
In the fall of 1996, shortly after I turned 26 years old, I drifted into New York City and signed the lease on a damp basement apartment in an inconvenient section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was a Polish neighborhood made up of three story brick houses near a waste transfer station, which spilled refuse out onto the streets when the wind blew hard. There was a creek too, somewhere, and it was said to be full of oil. My basement apartment had one redeeming feature, a small private backyard, and in the springtime I planted tomatoes there. One of my neighbors, a Polish fellow named Wiktor, warned me not to eat them because oil from the creek had seeped into the soil. But I ate them anyway, and they tasted fine.
Across the East River loomed the hustle and commerce of Manhattan and I found a job there sorting books and making copies in the library of a large law firm. It was simple, tedious work, but it paid fairly well and I quickly learned how to slip away for long stretches of time undetected by my supervisors. Three nights a week I worked a late shift and remained there until 4 a.m. The big firm was nicely quiet then and often I would escape to my favorite back hallway and sit contentedly to read a book or magazine.
Arthur Bradford’s first book, Dogwalker, was published by Knopf in 2001 and is out in Vintage paperback now. An O. Henry Award winner, his stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope, McSweeneys and Dazed and Confused. He is also the director of the documentary series How’s Your News? which appeared on HBO, PBS and Channel Four England.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AB: One time a distinguished-looking man asked me if I knew where he could purchase some marijuana—this later led to him asking me about cocaine and hookers, which I found amusing. And then another time I was asked by a friend to care for his enormous dog. Both of these interactions struck me similar impositions, so I put them in the same story.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
AB: Maybe the law firm setting. My wife worked in a law firm like that for a few years and so did my sister. I’m always a little freaked out when I go to those places, the way they present such an imposing wealthy façade. I made a point of checking out my wife’s workplace before I set out to write this, and I did at one time work in a library, but still I wasn’t on sure footing when I wrote about that place. I dislike it when I can tell a writer is taking on a world which is unfamiliar to him, yet I also wanted to expand my abilities, so that’s what was going on here, a compromise I guess.
HT: How did you come up with the character of Jim Tewilliger?
AB: I have at various times found myself going out of my way to help someone who just seems to keep asking for more. I sort of enjoy it actually. I mean, I like to be helpful, but I also am interested in hearing other people’s problems. I find it soothing. I suppose that’s a writerly trait. Anyway, Jim is just one of those types of characters, someone who keeps asking for help. And I know a few lawyers too.
HT: Was Jim’s decline instigated by George, or would he have found some other way to fall apart?
AB: I think Jim lived in such an isolated world and he was so afraid to step outside of it, that it would have been difficult for him to find another person like George to show him the way. But, that said, he was looking for a change so he probably would have found it at some point.
HT: Why doesn’t George agree to drive Boots to Mexico?
AB: He’s had enough of Jim by then. I guess my point may have been that although it may have appeared that Jim took advantage of George and abused their relationship, George was also doing the same thing. He lived a boring life too, and Jim’s presence added excitement. George is a writer, so he got something out of the bargain too. But that trip to Mexico was where he drew the line. I think I based this ending on two of my favorite stories’ endings. One is the ending of Norman MacLean’s “Logging, Pimping, and Your Pal Jim.” That great story ends with a short postcard from Jim. I just like the way a postcard serves to end things. And the other ending is the last line of Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South, that’s a novel, not a story, but it ends with the narrator, Ray, saying his wife has left him again, but he’s decided not to go after her this time. He’d learned his lesson, sort of.
HT: Your writing is very distinctive in tone and style—evocative and conversational, but at the same time very spare. Is this something that you’ve cultivated, over the years? Or is it just the way it comes out?
AB: I just like simple writing. I get confused if things get too verbose or convoluted. I really appreciate clean, direct prose. So, yes, I have tried to cultivate that. It’s not as easy as it might at first seem.
HT: Have you ever encountered a 217 pound dog?
AB: Yes, I have. Dogs that large dominate the lives of those who care for them. It’s an absurd proposition to have a dog like that in a place like New York City, but I’m sure that there are several living here right now. We have two dogs and weighed together I’d guess they are about 150 pounds. We also have a backyard where we grow tomatoes.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
AB: It took me about a week, if you put it altogether. Or maybe more, I’m not sure. I wanted to write a nice long story and after I finished it I put it down and didn’t re-read it for a few months. I made some changes after that though.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AB: Denis Johnson once told me to avoid getting a job for as long as possible. I had always thought that a writer must also hold another job, that this was what the real badasses do. But after he said this I realized that if you really want to take the plunge you might have to give up a salary for a while, that this was the true commitment. Of course, this can be irresponsible if you have to support a family or have other bills to pay. I’m not sure if this was the “best” advice I ever got, but I’ve always remembered it, and there’s some bit of truth in there. It worked for Denis. It’s pretty hard to write after you’ve spent a day working at something else.
HT: What are you working on now?
AB: I just finished directing a TV show which may or may not make it on the air. I also have this novel that I will finish this spring. Until then I’ll keep writing stories from time to time.