Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke

by Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has achieved a status similar to that of a difficult singer-songwriter who can claim legions of loyal fans, yet limited mainstream visibility. This collection of short stories – culled from among the hundred or so Rooke has published in the past 25 years – is clearly intended to change that. However, while this best-of collection shows clearly that Rooke’s reputation as Canada’s most broadly imaginative and unpredictable writer is warranted, it also raises the question of how well his fiction is dating.
Most of the stories here should be known to readers with even a passing familiarity with Rooke’s oeuvre. “The Birth Control King of the Upper Volta,” “The Heart Must from Its Breaking,” and other stories demonstrate his ability to alight anywhere and unpack his striking prose. Rooke’s voice is that of a Southern Gothic storyteller (he was born and raised in North Carolina) sucking on a postmodern lozenge. He is not a writer who has worked to recreate his surroundings or his youth, but rather has roamed widely through social classes, literary forms, and imaginative spaces.
All of the stories contain an undeniable vitality, yet there remains a nagging sense that, however much Rooke has pushed his prose to perform, he has not similarly pushed himself to innovate. One problem is that Rooke’s fairly fixed view of humanity as the butt of a cosmic joke leaves him little room to draw genuinely surprising insights from his characters. This is shown most clearly in the collection’s title story (also its newest), which suggests little more about its tackily rich characters than that they are very rich and very tacky.
It may be that Rooke, who first appeared at a time when much Canadian fiction was as adventurous as an unbuttoned collar, will discover that the literature he found so easy to skip ahead of has roused itself and is threatening to pass him by. Even painted dogs need new tricks.