Dog Eat Rat

By Tom Walmsley

The characters in Toronto poet and playwright Tom Walmsley’s Dog Eat Rat have sex. Some of them have other occupations, like private investigator, but their day (or night) jobs leave them with a lot of time to kill and an emptiness in their lives to fill. The novel begins with Ginger, Trip, and Aidan, who all work for the same agency, together on a stakeout. Ginger and Trip, and Trip and Aidan, become sexually involved. Ginger is also in a relationship with the agency’s owner, Rodney. Suzi, a lover of Trip’s, wants to become a private investigator as well. She has sex with Ginger. Ginger and Trip investigate the extramarital shenanigans of Rebecca, George’s wife. Trip has sex with Rebecca (who wouldn’t mind turning it into a three-way with Aidan). Ginger has sex with George. George has sex with Suzi.

Given that the novel is only 180 pages, this is a very up-tempo game of musical beds. But despite the much hinted at perversities, which mostly seem to involve voyeurism and power exchange role-playing, the action is not at all pornographic. When the buttons fly off the curtain quickly comes down. Walmsley is less interested in sex than seduction, as perfunctory as that often turns out to be. Women simply give themselves up to George, while Trip’s mojo is ascribed to “magical powers.” The coupling becomes automatic, fated, almost unconscious. “You’d fuck a handful of mud,” Ginger says to Rodney. “And you’d fuck a boom handle,” he replies. It all seems to Rebecca a foreshadowing of hell. “Everyone’s naked in Hell,” is how she explains it to Trip. But “Hell makes you horny.”

This religious angle is obviously important, but remains undeveloped. Sex, it seems, is a kind of displaced spirituality (or displaced everything, actually). Trip and Rebecca are the only ones concerned with matters of faith, however, and even for them what that means is hard to figure out. Rebecca has erotic fantasies while saying her Rosary and Trip, a lapsed Catholic with a crucifix “almost the size of the original,” is afraid he may be “too kinky for God.” But these two simply aren’t presented in enough depth for us to relate to their spiritual crises. Trip in particular, a character who shares some biographical highlights with Walmsley (a liver transplant, a penchant for writing haiku), is an almost total cipher. We are left to guess at the existential depths lying beneath his priapic facade. For the rest, spiritual emptiness is hardly distinguishable from the boredom brought on by a series of losing battles against the flesh.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2010.

%d bloggers like this: