by Arthur Bradford (Alfred A. Knopf, $20)
A MAN SCHTUPPING his girlfriend's dog isn't the strangest part of Dogwalker, Arthur Bradford's debut story collection. These skillfully twisted tales introduce such uncanny creatures as mutant puppies, canines that talk, and the character Catface (of the O. Henry Award-winning "Catface"), who receives the nickname because, in addition to his slit-like eyes, small nose, and crumpled ears, he " . . . had some sort of medical problem which made his face very shiny and flat." Bradford knows how to draw the freakish, so much so that the oddest of these stories come off as verbalized comic books.
Like Bradford's prose, his plots are basic, sometimes excruciatingly so: The pointless "Mattress" has two roommates retracing their driving path to find the recently purchased mattress that slipped off their truck, while the narrator of the impressionistic "The House of Alan Matthews" visits his pot dealer and discovers, thanks to an unsettling series of thumps against the wall, that there's a man imprisoned in his closet. Many of these tales unveil no more than the bizarre, causing us to feel like the slightly amused carnivalgoer who's ready to shuffle on to the next exhibit. But a few manage to snag our emotions. Though the husband of "Mollusks" had planned on making cash off his newfound treasure, a "quivering yellow slug about the size of a large loaf of bread," he frees it when he sees the rift it's creating between him and his unimpressed wife. In "Chainsaw Apple," a performer who has far from mastered his act ("My friend Robert would hold the apple in his mouth while I, steady-handed, carved his initials into the piece of fruit with a chainsaw") finds surprising forgiveness from a female audience member he accidentally injures.
But these tales trigger chuckles more than sighs, especially the epic "Dogs," which tracks the multiple generations born of the love between man and beast. The clan's patriarch explains what the hell happened: "Our affair came about one afternoon through a gradual progression of caressing and snuggling. Neither one of us, me or the dog, knew what to think after it happened. We just sat there kind of surprised at the way things had turned out. We really hadn't thought of each other like that."
With the freak show-like Dogwalker, Bradford has captured our attention; if he injects a little more humanity into his next book, he just might capture something more.
GROOVY BOB: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROBERT FRASER
by Harriet Vyner (Faber & Faber, $25)
"THAT'S NOT WRITING, it's typing."
The work of Jack Kerouac was the original target of Truman Capote's legendary taunt. But Groovy Bob, the latest in a string of oral histories masquerading as biographies, might have tempted Truman to reprise his remark.
Author Harriet Vyner has done a creditable job getting big-name artists (Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg) and rock stars (Paul McCartney, Keith Richards) to share their memories of pop-art dealer Robert Fraser, whose Duke Street gallery became the cultural crossroads of 1960s London. Through the space, Fraser introduced his beloved American artists to English collectors, including the new British rock aristocracy led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But despite the cooperation of many Fraser intimates (including his brother, Nicholas), the flamboyant art dealer extraordinaire remains disappointingly elusive. Fraser, who died of AIDS in 1986, seems to have pulled off in death the same trick he managed in life—compartmentalizing his existence so successfully that nobody ever actually saw the whole man. Vyner also chops her interview excerpts so finely (sometimes including three or four per page) that it can be hard to remember who's talking.
Perhaps this jigsaw puzzle of a book was meant as a symbolic nod to Fraser's scattered existence. Most of the gallery owner's artists loved him: He made things happen, he knew how to put together a show, and he had a matchless skill for drawing the right people to his openings. His friends also adored him but never felt they really knew him. The collectors who trusted Fraser's taste (as he himself always did) were rewarded years later when the artworks appreciated sharply in value. Fraser was, however, far less popular with gallery employees, bill collectors, and artists seeking to get paid for a sale.
Vyner's interviews about Fraser's later life are less revealing and, frankly, not that entertaining. Her exhaustive account of his privileged childhood is overlong. Let's just say young Mr. Fraser was a precocious, art-obsessed (and self-obsessed) little rich kid. I'd have preferred a narrative covering just the eight years of the Robert Fraser Gallery (1962-69), but Groovy Bob works well as a collection of fabulous anecdotes about Swinging London's pop-culture elite.