I first learned of Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories through The New Yorker fiction podcast, when Tobias Wolff read her story “Dog Heaven”. (Three years later, Téa Obreht chose “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” from the same collection, Sweet Talk.) Podcasts are my way of getting through laundry weekends, and I remember listening to “Dog Heaven” while I was folding a stack of tee shirts at my kitchen table. But at some point I had to stop to wipe my eyes. And then I just had to give up on the laundry altogether because I couldn’t concentrate on something as banal as folding tee shirts. I’m pretty sure this is the point of literature: to break us out of our routines.
I’ve read “Dog Heaven” several times since then and it always gets me feeling a little weepy. It’s a flat-out masterpiece, the story I would give to anyone who is lukewarm on short stories. (And, according to publishers, there are a lot of you out there). Without giving too much away, “Dog Heaven” is about a dog, Duke, who loves his family so much that he runs away from “dog heaven” in order to be with them. Gemma, the family’s young daughter, narrates the story, but in a way, the story’s true narrator is Duke, the dog. The story’s first sentence — “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again” — is perfection, letting you know right away that you are about to enter a lost world, one that maybe only Duke and Gemma know about.
Many of Vaughn’s stories depict lost worlds. Gemma is a recurring narrator, a military brat whose family moves often, going from one base to another. You would think this would lead to a feeling of dislocation, but Gemma has a sharp, outsider’s eye and her observations are grounding rather than alienating. I was especially intrigued by a story set (in part) on Governor’s Island, a small island in the New York Bay, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. Nowadays, Governor’s Island is a public park, a summertime spot that hosts public art and 1920s-themed parties, but in the 1970s, when Vaughn’s story is set, it was a slowly-dying military base:
If you looked away from the light of the city, you looked back into the darkness of the last three centuries, across roofs of brick buildings built by the British and the Dutch. The post was a Colonial retreat, an administrative headquarters, where soldiers strolled to work under boughs of hardwood trees, and the trumpeting of recorded bugle drifted through the leaves like a mist. It was a green, antique island, giving its last years of service to the United States Army.
Vaughn grew up a military brat, like Gemma, and in a recent interview for The Rumpus, she talked about conjuring places from her past, observing that over time, “you are as much an invention of your memories as you are the author of them.” You can feel that invention of memory taking hold in Gemma’s narration, as she looks back to her childhood and tries to make sense of her relationship to her family, and in a larger sense, her country. There is ambivalence toward authority throughout Sweet Talk, something more than the usual coming-of-age disillusionment, as Gemma confronts the dark side of military culture. It’s an ambivalence that feels especially relevant now, as Americans look back on a decade of war overseas.
Sweet Talk was published in 1990, with most of the stories being published in The New Yorker in the 1980s. It was re-issued last year by Other Press, and in her interview for The Rumpus Vaughn indicated that she has been working on a novel, but wouldn’t say much more. I am naturally eager to read more of Vaughn, but Sweet Talk is an achievement in its own right, not the training ground for a novel or the precursor to something greater. Here’s hoping it stays in print for years to come.