Saturday, January 17, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 3: "Strays" by Mark Richard

This week's card: The Queen of Hearts

(Sorry, couldn't resist!)

The anthology: The Best American Short Stories 1989

The story: "Strays" by Mark Richard

I was unfamiliar with Mark Richard's work before reading this story. According to Wikipedia, he is a short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, and poet. He was born in 1955 in Lake Charles, Louisiana (kind of my neck of the woods, broadly geographically speaking) and had a childhood on which he must have drawn heavily in the writing of this story. Which was HORRIBLY depressing, but good (with occasional glimpses of humor).

The title of the story comes from the stray dogs that come up underneath the narrator's house each night to lick water from the house's leaking pipes. The narrator takes great pleasure in stomping on the floor and scaring the dogs away, but his younger brother is always thinking up plans to capture one of the dogs and make it his pet.

The story opens as the boys' mother runs off one morning. She appears to be mentally disturbed, because before she leaves, she pulls all the preserves off the kitchen shelves, and stuffs her children's drawings into her mouth. She takes off across the fields, and the boys' father calls "their nearest relative with a car," Uncle Trash. Uncle Trash loans his car to the boys' father, who takes off after their mother. It's not until the car is gone that Uncle Trash remembers the bottle of booze that was stashed under the seat of the car. So he takes off to town himself to find a drink, leaving the boys alone with a final admonition, "Don't y'all burn the house down." This becomes a constant refrain, as Uncle Trash is not the world's best babysitter, and he leaves the boys alone a lot.

Uncle Trash is a gambler, and this is one of the main sources of humor and tragedy in this story. He comes back with a mangled face after that first trip to town, and it's because he gets into a fight after betting his car in a card game -- the car he no longer has, of course. After another card game, he wins the services of the grocery store owner's wife, who grudgingly comes to the house and cleans it for the family.

This story does not end well, of course, as the boys accidentally do exactly what Uncle Trash has been telling them NOT to do for weeks. And the mother is retrieved from her long journey, only to run away again. There's not much redemption or resolution here. So even though this story has quite a bit of humor in it, it is not a humorous story. All the characters are clearly trapped in their meager, tragic existences, and it becomes clear by the end of the story that there are more strays here than just the dogs under the house.

However, in spite of the depressing outcome, this WAS an excellent story, and I highly recommend it!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. I hadn't heard of this author before either. Glad the story was excellent in spite of the fact habit was a downer. That's one good thing about the BASS collections, I rarely find a story that I can't at least appreciate on some level. The editors have already sorted out all the "duds" for us. :-)

  2. Sounds like an interesting story. I agree with Jay when it comes to the BASS collections. A lot of the stories on my list are the Best of the Century collection. So far, the ones I've read have been very good - but then I guess that's what I should expect.

  3. Mark Richard is among the very best short story writers alive, with two outstanding collections (Ice at the Bottom of the World -&- Charity) as well as a novel: Fishboy, and memoir: House of Prayer #2. All are worth your time and most deserve a second reading to savor his wonderful dialogue.

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