The New York Times
Water Dogsby Lewis Robinson
Lewis Robinson’s critically acclaimed story collection Officer Friendly was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “eleven letter-perfect stories with the keen understanding of human nature readers expect to find in works by veterans like Alice Munro.” Now Robinson has written Water Dogs, a suspenseful, disquieting, and compulsively readable first novel that takes an unforgettable look at the delicate patchwork of a family.
Bennie knows that the details of his life don’t show well. A twenty-seven-year-old college dropout with stalled ambitions, he works at an animal shelter and lives with his bullheaded older brother, Littlefield, in their old family home on Meadow Island, Maine, a house that has fallen into disrepair since their father’s untimely death several years earlier.
When a massive blizzard hits the state one Saturday afternoon, Bennie, Littlefield, and a crew of roughneck war-game enthusiasts decide to play paintball at the local granite quarry. Bennie accidentally falls into a gully, landing in the hospital, and wonders if his life can get any worse. But when one of the players disappears during the storm and Littlefield becomes the main suspect in the disappearance, Bennie realizes that the game might have had much higher stakes. Then Littlefield takes off without a word of explanation, forcing Bennie to seriously question his loyalty to his enigmatic brother. With the guidance of his intrepid girlfriend, Helen, and his twin sister, Gwen, Bennie goes looking for answers, embarking on a journey that brings him closer to a truth he may not want to discover. What he finds will change his family and his life forever.
Written in prose as arresting and spare as the novel’s rural Maine setting, Lewis Robinson’s Water Dogs is a marvel of modern fiction, a book rich in empathy that follows one man’s path through the uncertainties of youth and loss toward self-discovery.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times
Robinson's atmospheric and dreary first novel (after story collection Officer Friendly) revolves around a man gone missing in a blizzard. Bennie, a 20-something college dropout, scratches out a middling existence in rural Maine and lives with his taciturn brother, Littlefield, in their family's rotting mansion. The brothers don't have much going for them, and things get worse after a mishap during a paintball game. During the match, played during a blizzard, Bennie falls into a gorge and badly hurts himself, and a drifter member of the opposing team disappears. His body isn't recovered, and nobody's sure if he just picked up and left town or was murdered. But Littlefield and Bennie's friend Julian both call attention to themselves by behaving strangely, and when Bennie's twin sister, Gwen, comes back for a visit, she and Helen, a young woman working for Julian who catches Bennie's eye, help Bennie ferret out the truth about the missing man. Though the labored shifts between past and present detract from the narrative's understated power, Robinson does a magnificent job of painting a bleak and vivid picture of a rough-hewn community and the bonds that hold it together. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
What are the limits of loyalty toward family? This seems to be the primary question underlying Robinson's debut novel, set in the dreary mud season of late winter in southern Maine. The three Littlefield siblings grew up in a competitive atmosphere-their father was always called "Coach" by everyone who knew him-But now that they are adults, will a crisis allow them to stick together? Or will the cruel truth about one brother's history emerge at last? Sister Gwen graduated from Vassar and is pursuing an acting career in New York. Her brothers reside in the crumbling family house on a small island in Maine. Younger brother Bennie tries to hold things together. Older brother Littlefield is a dark, brooding man who has only known two people in his life who have really understood him: his dad and sometime-girlfriend Martha. When an acquaintance of Martha's disappears during a snowstorm, the older brother is implicated, and this shines a blinding light on the Littlefield family's difficult past. Although it starts off slowly, the mystery of the snowy incident and the revelations from each of the characters' lives add up to an evocative story with a surprising conclusion. Recommended for public libraries where there is strong interest in regional writers of New England.
“Lewis Robinson is a terrific writer, and in Water Dogs he evokes the moods and landscapes of Maine as deftly as he examines the conflicts and alliances within a family. This is a smart, suspenseful, absorbing first novel.”
–Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife
“Lewis Robinson writes with authority and grace about the complications of sibling love: jealousies, disappointments, old hurts, and blind devotion. The siblings in Water Dogs, despite their unusual circumstances, are thoroughly convincing, with an underlying sweetness that betrays the author’s big, beautiful heart.”
–Monica Wood, author of Any Bitter Thing
“The disappearance of a man during a snowstorm is just the first of many intriguing mysteries layered in Lewis Robinson's luminous novel. Among the other enigmas are the ways we find love, or lose it; the shifting tides of family loyalty; and the endless pull of home. Wonderfully rooted in its Maine landscape, Water Dogs is a compelling and poignant book.”
–Alix Ohlin, author of Babylon and Other Stories
“Lewis Robinson is an irresistible storyteller. I've spent some time in Maine and, well, apologies to all you hockey-playing, urchin-harvesting hard asses up there, it’s not my idea of Vacationland. But from the first sentence of Robinson’s wry yet headlong prose, I found myself devouring the place. This is a wonderful novel.”
–Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of It All
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Read an Excerpt
Bennie didn’t recognize the sound. There were squirrels who sometimes nested in the attic, and barred owls in the nearby woods, and, during the summer, cats in heat prowling the backyard, but the cries he heard were from a place closer to his bedroom. When he was perfectly still, not moving his head on the pillow, every few seconds he would hear the faint crying. He climbed out of bed and crossed the cold pine floor in his boxers. It was still dark out. Standing in the doorway, he listened. It seemed to be in the living room. He felt his way to the standing lamp in the corner and turned the switch, waited, then heard it distinctly, coming from the far wall. He walked closer to the fireplace. The sound was loudest just to the left of the hearth. He put his ear against the plaster. A gentle bump against the lath, and scratching. He imagined a new hole in the eaves—or an old hole Littlefield hadn’t told him about—and now something trapped inside the wall, crying.
At the bottom of the basement stairs, Bennie grabbed a saber saw and a crowbar from Littlefield’s pegboard, and a pair of canvas gloves and a flashlight from the tool apron. Littlefield would have suggested poison—and he wouldn’t have allowed Bennie to use the saber saw—but Littlefield had gone out to the bar, which meant he was probably now sleeping in his Chevette. When Bennie returned to the living room, he knelt beside the baseboard, listened a final time, then cut a rough rectangle through the plaster. With the crowbar he pried back the lath. He aimed the flashlight into the hole. Eight or ten raccoon eyes looked up at him, little quivering noses pointed toward the light, black fur around the eyes, a stripe of white across the ears and snout. Tiny bandits with miniature claws. They didn’t move much but they continued to chatter and cry. He steered the light around the space within the walls and saw only the babies—nothing larger—so he put on his brother’s canvas gloves, reached through the hole, and pulled them out, one by one, putting them in the cardboard box used for kindling. They didn’t resist, though he felt the light touch of their thin claws. When he’d gotten all five out, he took the box to the porch, set it down, then walked through the breezeway to the barn, where he found the galvanized live-catch trap their sister had once used for opossum in the basement. This plan felt very efficient to him, well conceived. To catch the mother, Bennie baited the trap with an entire tin of sardines. He knew she’d be back. He looked under the eaves and found a hole beside one of the porch’s support columns. He placed the trap next to the cardboard kindling box, on the corner of the porch, beneath the hole.
After switching off all the lights, he got back under the covers. Except for the billowing wind in the spruce trees outside and, occasionally, the steel chime of the bell buoy near Esker Point, all was quiet. Bennie’s skin was still cold from the winter night. He tried to relax. He thought about what a victory this had been—the decision to cut the hole, making it the right size, saving the baby raccoons. He’d find a better place for them. Littlefield would laugh, but he didn’t care. He’d done the right thing.
But crying in that box on the porch until morning—it was the first week of March, still bitterly cold—the raccoons would surely freeze. He shook his covers off again, stood up, and walked outside to retrieve the box. He put it on the kitchen table; the raccoons stayed quiet.
Back in bed, Bennie could hear them crying again. He got up, walked to the kitchen, and put the box in the mop closet, then returned to his room. Done.
Thirty or forty minutes later, the phone rang. Bennie marched back to the kitchen, this time aware of how tired he was, and how few hours remained before sunrise. It was his twin sister, Gwen. She lived in New York.
“Littlefield said you didn’t want me to come home. For a visit.”
“Gwen?” he asked. “Do you know what time it is?”
“For a visit. You didn’t want me around.”
“Gwen, that’s ridiculous. Come home. Of course I’d love to see you. What time is it? Are you drunk?”
“I didn’t think you’d answer the phone.”
“You shouldn’t believe Littlefield when he says something like that. He’s just messing with you.”
“I guess I just wanted to make sure. Could I visit next week sometime?”
“It’s your house, too. Of course you can visit. I’d love you to visit. I’m kind of asleep right now. Can I call you back?”
“Is Littlefield there?”
“He’s out. Down at Julian’s, I think.”
“Eddie’s, the bar. Now they call it Julian’s. Julian is Eddie’s son.”
“Right. That tall guy. I remember him. Really, really tall. Like a freak.”
“I’m asleep, Gwen. Call back tomorrow, okay?”
“Will you pick me up at the airport?”
“Next week. When I come.”
“Of course. Good night.”
“I’ll be there for our birthdays,” she said.
Growing up, they’d always celebrated together—they were born only fifteen minutes apart, on either side of midnight. “That’d be nice,” he said. “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Wow. Somebody’s grumpy. Next time, just don’t answer the phone. We’ll all be happier,” she said, and hung up.
As he tried to sleep, he thought about their old family house—its leaky pipes, chipping paint, uneven floors, drafty windows. Baby raccoons in the walls. They called it “the Manse,” which had been a family joke, because the house was not grand or impressive compared to others along the coast, but now that Bennie and Littlefield were in charge, and the porch seemed one or two strong storms away from crumbling into the ocean, and the old copper pipes were failing, rotting the ceilings and the walls, calling the place “the Manse” seemed sad. The last time Gwen had come to visit them—the previous summer—she and Bennie had been sitting on the porch, drinking beer, discussing Gwen’s latest rationale for living in New York and continuing her quest to be an actress. Gwen said that pretending to be another person was invigorating. Bennie wanted to relate this to his own experience, so after he let his sister finish, he took a big sip of beer and said that paintball was a pretty good outlet for pretending, too.
He told her that paintball taught him to be careful, and patient, and that he and Littlefield and Julian went out together, competing against a group of sea urchin divers at a year-round course called the Flying Dutchman, sometimes going for a full session without taking more than two or three shots. Two or three gumballs, hopefully kill shots, full of bright-colored sludge. They played every Saturday.
When Bennie looked at her after describing this, he knew they were both having the same thought: there’d been a lot of promise, once. According to their mom at least. He’d done pretty well in high school. They were the grandchildren of an original member of the Stock Exchange. But while Gwen had decided at Vassar to be an actress (it took her a few years to get to New York, and she wasn’t doing much acting, but she’d landed two small roles at the Brooklyn Family Theater in Park Slope and she had a gig as a temp at an accounting firm), Bennie hadn’t finished college. He thought there might be a time when he’d start up again—when he would have good ideas about how to put a college degree to use in midcoast Maine—but for now he just wanted to keep the Manse from falling apart. Working at the vet’s office, taking care of the house—that was plenty. He and Gwen were about to turn twenty-seven.
The front door banged shut, and from his bed Bennie heard Littlefield knocking his boots against the wall, depositing, Bennie was sure, lumps of snow on the kitchen floor. Bennie heard the sink faucet turn on, and the clink of a glass. Littlefield tromped into the living room. After a brief silence, he said, “My fucking saber saw. Don’t use my saber saw.”
“I’m asleep,” said Bennie. When they’d moved back into the old house, Bennie had chosen the downstairs bedroom. Most of the time, it was convenient, but there were occasional disadvantages to sleeping near the front door.
“Whoa! Did you cut a hole in the wall?”
Bennie flipped his light on and came to the doorway. “Take off your boots when you come inside.”
Littlefield was poking the ashes in the fire, trying to find the coals. He was wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood up. “Those are my sardines in the trap out there.”
“Has it sprung yet?” asked Bennie.
“That’s no way to catch an animal. Have a heart? Please. Have some balls, Bennie. That’s a better motto when you’re catching an animal. Have. Some. Balls. Some scrotal ballast. I should design a grow-a-pair trap and force you to use it. A giant glue trap—with a guillotine.”
“Did you look closely? Maybe it’s already sprung,” Bennie said, walking to the kitchen. It felt satisfying to ignore his brother’s latenight bluster. Bennie held open the door and they walked onto the porch.
In his underwear, Bennie shone the flashlight at the trap. The beam sparkled on the empty trap’s galvanized metal. “Did you talk to Gwen?”
“No,” said Littlefield.
“She called tonight. She said you said we didn’t want her to visit.”
They walked back inside, Bennie holding the door again. Littlefield said, “No. I told her you didn’t want her to visit.”
Bennie felt a familiar anger rise in his chest. “What? Why?”
Littlefield crumpled newspaper and laid it on the andirons. “Where’s the kindling box?”
“We’re out of kindling,” said Bennie. He grabbed a wool blanket from the back of the couch, wrapped it around himself, and sat in the rocking chair.
“I’ll go chop some,” said Littlefield.
“Hold on,” said Bennie. “There’s some in the kitchen.” He retrieved the cardboard box from the mop closet and brought it to the living room, set it down gently, and opened it. The raccoon babies were clumped together, a mass of wriggling fur, squeaking quietly.
He waited for his brother’s reaction.
Finally, Littlefield said, “Do you see those rats in that box?”
“They were in the wall,” said Bennie. “They were keeping me up. They’re not rats. They’re raccoons.”
“And you put them in that box?”
“I didn’t want you to poison them.”
“They’ll give you roundworm. The grubs can get into your stomach. They eat your kidneys and your heart.”
“The grubs can get in your stomach?”
“If you swallow them.”
Bennie knew it was rarely worth arguing details with Littlefield. He handed him the kindling and said, “I’m just trying to catch the mom. Then I’ll let them all go.”
“Get them the hell out of here. They’re wild animals. They shouldn’t be in here.”
“After I catch the mom I’ll bring them all down to the ravine.”
Littlefield shook his head. He arranged the kindling on top of the newspaper. Bennie closed the box and returned it to the kitchen closet and poured himself a glass of milk. When he got back to the living room, the fire was towering, yellow flames lapping the entrance to the flue. Littlefield was sprawled out on the purple couch, still wearing his boots.
Bennie asked, “Why’d you say that to Gwen?”
“Didn’t you tell me you didn’t want my friends coming around?”
“Just Skunk and those other guys living in his trailer.” Skunk Gould and Littlefield had thrown an impromptu party at the Manse in January when Bennie was away for the night. They’d broken windows in the living room and someone had pissed on the rocking chair.
“And that you wanted to keep the place neater?” asked Littlefield.
“And this has what to do with Gwen?”
“I told her you were dating some girl from Bowdoin. And you didn’t want the house to look too messy. In case you brought her back here.”
“Admit you do want to see your sister.”
“I’d be happy to see Gwen.”
“Admit you’re just being an asshole,” said Bennie. “And for the record, Helen’s not from Bowdoin. She went to Bowdoin College. And she lives in Musquacook. She’s a cook. At Julian’s.”
“Impressive! That’s some real fine cuisine they have down there. I just had their onion rings about an hour ago. Five stars.”
“Screw you. She puts together their dinner menu. That kitchen is actually doing a much better job since she started there.”
“I’m telling you—top-shelf onion rings.” Littlefield kissed his fingertips. “Magnifique.”
“I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself, retard, but that’s the fry cook, not Helen.”
“What a shame,” said Littlefield, closing his eyes.
Bennie wrapped himself in the wool blanket again. He rocked back and forth in the chair, staring at the fire. Both brothers were quiet. Within minutes, Littlefield was snoring on the couch.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Lewis Robinson is the author of Officer Friendly and Other Stories, winner of the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award. A graduate of Middlebury College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2003. He now teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine and coaches basketball in Portland, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
From the Hardcover edition.
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