Author: Antonio Ruiz-Camacho
Published: March 2015
Short Stories | 160 pages | Published by Scribner
Barefoot Dogs is a book that demands we relish every word and revel in its ephemeral nature. It is a slender collection of only 140 pages of content that exudes sophistication and relevance. The narrative follows the Arteagas, a wealthy Mexican family who is forced to expatriate and abandon their ancestral home in Mexico after the patriarch, Jose Victoriano Arteaga, is kidnapped by a drug gang and all their lives face immediate peril.
Even though it could easily pass for one, Barefoot Dogs is not a novel, but a collection of short stories told from the perspectives of several members of the Arteaga tribe or people who had close ties to them, such as a maid who had been working for the family for decades or the mistress nobody knew existed. The link between these stories is sometimes subtle, but the haunting memory of the kidnapping and the feeling of exile that permeates all of them makes it clear that this is a grand family drama told in short form, in stunning vignettes.
The most striking feature of Barefoot Dogs is the elegant, perceptive, and evocative language. At times, I was struck by how beautiful and original the sentences were. Titles such as “Origami Prunes,” the titular “Barefoot Dogs,” and phrases like “Laura’s helplessness was wrapped in a thin layer of arrogance” are clever and memorable. At a book signing event in Austin, the author interestingly described writing in English as being similar to how we see when opening our eyes underwater! So this strange and clever language is all the more impressive when one considers that English is the author’s second language, one he learned later in life.
I am unabashedly a lover of ambitious and sprawling narratives, so when I read short story collections, my brain naturally seeks to find a connection of any sort between them. This book is admittedly not a sprawling narrative. Thankfully, it reads more like a very short novel than a collection of stories and I appreciated having a reference point from which to experience all the them — the kidnapping of the patriarch and the family in exile.
I will refrain from discussing individual stories in-depth due to the short length of the work. But I will say that Antonio Ruiz-Camacho wrote an impressively diverse set of stories that cover several themes and ideas and are told in varying narrative structures. From stream-of-consciousness narration to stories told entirely through dialogue — the writing keeps you on your toes and is executed expertly.
The family tree at the end proved to be tremendously influential in my enjoyment of the overarching story because I was quickly able to place a character in context of the larger narrative. For example, Laura from “Origami Prunes” is the eldest daughter of the kidnapped patriarch; Fernanda and Nicolasa from “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” are Laura’s daughters, though I would have never known if I had skipped the family tree. These subtle connections are suddenly made significant and as a result I was able to appreciate the stories both individually and collectively.
Barefoot Dogs earns my most earnest praise and recommendation. It is timely, powerful fiction about a family torn apart by violence that is brilliantly rendered in smart and singular language. As far as short story collections go, this is one of best you’ll read in 2016.