Mad Dog barks up the wrong genre

By Natalie Sit

Mad Dog should be put down. Permanently.

The book is Canadian author Kelly Watt’s first novel, although she is an award-winning short story writer. While I admit I have never read any of her short stories, Mad Dog might have worked better as a short story.

It begins and ends on a quiet Ontarian apple orchard, far from the race riots in America. Sheryl-Anne was abandoned by her mother and lives with her pharmacist uncle Fergus. Her idyllic existence begins to crumble when her uncle brings home a hitchhiker named Peter Angelo. Like every kid with a guitar in the ’60s, Peter wants to be Bob Dylan. But like every parent in the ’60s, Peter’s parents didn’t want their kid wasting his time, so he runs away and ends up on a cliché-ridden apple farm.

Sheryl-Anne is a sexually adventurous 14-year old who nurses her crush on Peter. Since she can’t be completely normal she is also plagued by violent dreams that Fergus calls "the sight." It comes as no surprise that Fergus is a crazy man, hell-bent on spreading his gospel about the coming apocalypse. His delusions are fuelled by late-night sermons, dope and the fact that no one questions him. When Peter arrives, Fergus’ dangerous schemes can finally come true. But Peter is engrossed by the hope Fergus might make him the next Bob Dylan.

Throughout the book, there are many over-the-top biblical allusions. Watt oddly compares Peter to Jesus with lines like, "He leaned a shoulder onto the hot car, and the sun tilted off the chrome and showered his golden head with a sudden blinding metallic halo." But Watt does not tell readers why she uses that device.

Despite this, Watt does well in capturing Sheryl-Anne’s resulting confusion. Are her dreams caused by insanity or a repressed memory? Or perhaps it’s a by-product of Watt’s confused plotting. It’s hard to tell.

However, Watt’s work is indicative of a bigger symptom in Canadian culture–if such a thing exists. Canadians maintain we have a separate culture than the hulking Americans. We perpetuate myths that our hockey players are better and our citizens are nicer. As well, our music, literature, and television programs are different. So we’ve set up Canadian content regulations to protect the fragile Canadian identity. We huddle around it or use it to fend off the American onslaught. But perhaps we’re only joking ourselves. Perhaps CanCon only perpetuates mediocrity. Maybe we should end CanCon legislation and see what survives. Canadian culture would either grow stronger or wither away to be replaced by something else.

In the end, it’s hard to argue for protectionist legislature when it produces books like Mad Dog.

Leave a comment