Review: Black Dog by Matt Syverson

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

This review was first posted at West of Mars. It’s being reposted here, at its new permanent home.

Before picking up Matt Syverson’s Black Dog, I’d been forewarned by the author himself that there was some Gonzo writing going on in it. Yes, you know: Gonzo. Like Hunter S. Thompson and Naked Lunch and all that.

I’ve never been a huge fan of this sort of lit. But … Syverson pulled me in. His narrative voice is rhythmic, and his word choice is clever as anything.

The story is that of Joe E. and his friend Jonah, who spend the summer in Stringtown, Alabama with Joe E’s rather dotty granny. There’s something funny going on in Stringtown, something creepy. Joe E and Jonah are the right men for the job — and the job’s going to make men out of them.

Along the way, they encounter a taxi driver named Otis, a mysterious black dog, a unicorn, a werewolf, a man named Aqualung, and other odd things. With the exception of Otis, all come from one of the most clever phenomenons to enter fiction: they were conjured when Joe E and Jonah backmasked certain songs on Joe E’s uncle’s old record player.

Yep, boys and girls. We’re talking vinyl, that old relic of 1970s music listening. Oh, it’s still around if you know where to look, and you can even find turntables and needles, but for the most part, music these days has lost the charming snap, crackle, and pop of vinyl.

It’s also lost the joy and mystery of backmasking. For those of you new to this art, it’s when a music lover (or hater, out to prove their agenda) takes a 33 1/3 rpm record and manually spins the turntable backwards to hear what happens. Some say words and suggestions — always dark, violent, and/or Satanic — are embedded in this noise. Some claim it’s put there deliberately, but who really knows?

Backmasking is the core of this plot. Joe E discovers that it’s responsible for the 30 years of terror that have marked Stringtown — and that it can also be the town’s salvation.

Now, this story isn’t without its flaws. Due to the Gonzo writing, the narrator becomes a character in the story, but one who observes and makes commentary, not one who is involved in the events as they unfold. This limits the way the reader interacts with Joe E, Jonah, and their posse. It almost feels like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where you spend more time listening to Joel, Tom, and Crow than you pay attention to the story.

Almost, but not quite. Like I said, the writing is so darn clever, you can’t help but laugh along with its sly inside jokes. If you’re a music lover, you’ll get the jokes. If you’re not, sit down with the lyric sheets to all the songs mentioned. Then you’ll get them.

Overall, this is a fun read. Pure and simple. It’s not great literature, but I’m not always a fan of great literature. It’s a romp through clever ideas and better word choice. It’s an escape into a neglected style of writing — a style often ignored because it’s so hard to master. Syverson’s done it.

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