By Charles Rammelkamp
Structured around the twelve labors of Heracles, Carl Fuerst’s whimsical, Vonnegut-esque novel follows Henry Streator on the “quest” he has been assigned by his employer, Atlas Systems, but The Upright Dog also purports to be Doctor Emily Stebbins’ attempt to set the record straight on the mythological Greek hero. Indeed, after the twelve entertaining episodes in which we follow Henry’s travels and trials, the last quarter of the book consists of the scholar’s clarifying endnotes.
The twelve labors of Heracles were his punishment for killing his family, which he was tricked into doing by Hera, the queen of the Gods, Zeus’s wife. Heracles had gone to the Oracle at Delphi for guidance on how to atone for his sin. There, he prayed to the god Apollo for guidance. Heracles was told to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. During this time, he was sent to perform a series of difficult feats, or “labors.”
Henry’s own “labors” come in the form of assignments from Atlas Systems. They feel like mysterious scavenger-hunt clues. “My employer doesn’t care what hours I work,” he tells Dixon, the exterminator (“God, in his wisdom, gave us the fly, but then he forgot to tell us why,” Dixon cryptically recites, part of this novel’s wisdom.) in “The Third Labor: Heracles and the Stag of Ceryneia,” “As long as I complete the tasks they give me.”
Each chapter begins with a precis of the labor that is often a metaphor for that particular episode. In “The Fourth Labor: Heracles and the Pig,” for instance, Henry’s cellphone buzzes with a text message from Atlas Systems, “Drv Nxh,” which he interprets to mean “Drive North.” Heracles’ fourth labor was to slay the Erymanthian Boar. When Henry skids into a snowbank and calls it quits for the night, the hotel where he randomly lodges has already received payment from Atlas, as if fated. Henry befriends a pug named Mrs. Biscuits, who mysteriously has a tag around her neck that reads “Property of Henry Streator.” (Another tag around Mrs. Biscuits’ neck reads: “We know this is nonsense, but trust us – when this is all over you’ll see the point.”)
Atlas Systems arranges and pays for a ride to which Henry is summoned by the hotel clerk. He nods off in the cab only to hear an anxious voice on the taxi’s radio announce that she is “Dr. Emily Stebbins of the University of Wisconsin-Algona Astronomy Department” – the scholar behind the scholarly record that forms part of The Upright Dog! Only Henry wakes up, alone in the cab. Mrs. Biscuits is gone. He’s sad, of course, having become attached to Mrs. Biscuits, and a mysterious woman (could this be Dr. Stebbins?), reassures him: “at no point was that actually your dog.” On to the Augean Stables! A tad confused? The footnote is even more mystifying, a quotation from Euripides’ Alcestis. But trust Fuerst – you’ll see the point when the story’s over…or will you?
Not the least of the pleasures of this work, by the way, are these arcane tidbits in the scholarly notes, such as the etymological origin of the word “karaoke” (“empty orchestra”), complete with Japanese ideograms. The endnotes are full of “Alternate Translations,” from Plutarch and Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar and Hesiod. Indeed, the epigraph to the entire book is from Hesiod’s Theogeny: “We know how to speak many false things, as though they were true, but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”
Do we ultimately see the point? The twelve labors of Heracles are usually cited as the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering which leads to fame and, in Heracles’ case, immortality. The labors themselves are often interpreted allegorically. By clearing out the Augean Stables, for instance, clearing out the mass of dung, he is said to clearing out the foulness that disfigures humanity.
By the eleventh labor – “Heracles and the Apples” – Henry has received a “certificate of achievement,” the kind of honorific “award” (in lieu of money) that organizations universally bestow on employees: “In recognition of outstanding effort at Atlas Systems.” Attaboy! He seems to be on the right road – metaphorically and literally.
In the endnotes, Dr. Stebbins explains to Henry that the Ancients’ concept of work was entirely different from modern views. This lesson is repeated for emphasis in the Epilogue
The “upright dog,” of course, is “man,” you and me and her and him; them and us. Henry is always on the road, driving, his “quest” a never-ending journey, which may be the ultimate metaphor, because “that’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes us gods, and that’s what makes us god-damned dogs.”
The Upright Dog is an ingenious puzzle, enchantingly Nabokovian in its construction (think: Pale Fire), but with a dark humor that, yes, does make one think of Kurt Vonnegut.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Upright-Dog-Carl-Fuerst/dp/B09R3HDX1S
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.