Reviews > By Roxanne Ward, The Globe & Mail, Canada

Section Image

the-globe-and-mailFrom the beginning of Kelly Watt’ s gripping but deeply unsettling first novel, Mad Dog, one gets the feeling that beneath the idyllic rural setting there is an ugliness to 14-year-old Sheryl-Anne MacRae’s world.

It is the summer of 1964 in Southern Ontario; Sheryl spends languorous days exploring fields and idly climbing trees. But her psyche seems to haunt her. she is tortured by her nightmares – horrible scenes of ritual sex and death. She feels strangely “nervous nights and Sun days,” and with the nervousness come “the voices, the pictures, the sight.”

Sheryl, whose mother abandoned her more than a decade ago, longs to run away and find her –to leave the family orchard where her pharmacist uncle Fergus holds court most evenings, smoking joints and popping “ magic pills” and dispensing ideas about the coming of the new world.

Mad Dog begins with the arrival of a young hitchhiker, Peter, a guitar-playing James Dean lookalike heading for the café scene in Toronto’s Yorkville. Fergus, who has a habit of bringing home strays, has promised to introduce him to some friends in the music business if he’ll help with this year’s harvest.

This is a difficult book to categorize. Of course, Sheryl-Anne falls painfully in love and looks to Peter as her possible escape. But to call this a first-love/coming-of-age story would belie the suspense and mystery that Watt so adeptly creates.

Fergus is a charismatic leader, and his family – his wife Eleanor, brothers Earl and Eammon, and Earl’s wife April – have taken to saying “amen” and “halleluljah” when he speaks. But, as the summer progresses, he becomes increasingly erratic and manipulative.

An award-winning short story writer, Watt sets a tone of foreboding from the start – and makes it seem as though almost every other detail is a clue. Surely it’s a portent when, at the beach, Sheryl wonders “how the water could look so beautiful and serene on the surface, while the bottom was littered with the old bones of drowned sailors and sunken ships, and the winter coats of ice fishermen who fell in every spring.”

And the symbol on the deaf boy’s walking stick, a blue eye with a red iris, why does she find it “eerily familiar”? Is the crazy man really responsible for all those missing cats? And what happened to Lupus – the mad dog of the title – to make him so consistently enraged?

In addition to dreams, Watt employs other devices – Sheryl wants to be a private detective, for example, and has thus developed a habit of spying – to instill the idea that something else is going on, something sinister.

However, throughout most of the novel, Watt merely implies evil, skirting the evidence and causing me to wonder – with so many hints along the way – whether she’d provide the big-bang ending I was hoping for, and, if so, whether it would be predictable. The answers are yes and sort of. But if certain elements of the plot do steer to an obvious conclusion, the book still satisfies.

An intelligent writer, Watt adds detail like strips of glued newspaper on a papier-mâche sculpture. Fergus’s wife Eleanor used to colour hair for a living. Now she sells Avon, drinks too much and wears furry-heeled slippers. When the neighbours pay a visit, it’s because they’re wondering how Fergus could afford all that new equipment for the orchard. In one of the book’s many telling lines, Sheryl listens to the way Fergus placates them and thinks, “He could sound just like a farmer when he wanted to.”

With her first novel, Watt has created a story of substance, layering the everyday concerns of an apple harvest over those of race riots and missing civil-rights activists , the apocalypse and pagan ritual over the longing of first love, cruelty endured over cruelty meted out. to be sure, there is ugliness in Mad Dog. But there is also solid writing, from a writer whose second book I, for one, will be sure to seek out.

Roxanne Ward has a soft spot for the summer of 1964, it having been her first. She is the author of the novel Fits Like a Rubber Dress.