Robert Wintner’s Hagan’s Trial and Other Stories careens through the author’s skeleton closet like a time machine that has rejected linear travel. With no attention to geographic or chronological order, Wintner groups these 17 tales in three categories: “Animals,” “Love,” and “Animal Love” (not bestiality, but the familial love between man and beast). Each of the seemingly autobiographical stories provide integral clues to previous stories, forcing the frustrated reader to backtrack. Yet each episode is compelling in its own way and entertains with Wintner’s warped worldview.
In “Animals” and “Animal Love,” Wintner explores childhood in the deep South, using the barometer of humans’ adoration (or disdain) of their four-legged friends. In the title story, set in a town called Daufuskie where people “knew neither how to swim nor name the current president,” Hagan, a moth-eaten “Weimaraner galoot” is tried for the murder of a prissy toy poodle named LeRoi who is rumored to be homosexual. The defacto judge, unnerved by the media’s close coverage, dismisses the case because he “cain’t kill a damn dog with the whole world watching.” The story fizzles into moralistic ponderance as it illustrates a self-important court system presumptuous enough to try an animal as a person. The judge’s conclusion (“ain’t no damn opinion in the world worth the life of a good dog”) is a critique of capital punishment: Sentimentalists are unable to pull the plug on a four-legged suspect where his human counterpart may have neen summarily condemned.
The more expansive “Love” section recounts disastrous male/female relationships. “A Dream Come True” catalogs a marriage that falls apart after the wife, desperately trying to find her true calling, becomes a social worker. When she discovers that counseling cancer patients is a downer—but that teaching special-ed kids “who make Barney look like a sage” is even worse—her depression cleaves the relationship. Meanwhile, the husband’s recently divorced best friend endures unraveling affairs of his own. This subplot is beautifully interwoven, illustrating the emptiness in casual sex as the best friend “got a divorce. Then he got all the blow jobs money could buy, and…a nervous little solitude that left him busy and talking, always emptied out.” Wintner’s stories, alwaystestosterone-driven, consistently find men unable to resist an inner adolescent idiocy that compels them to strike out with women—which is strangely endearing.
Such is the case in “If Eyebrows Was a Man,” a story whose self-deprecating (and condescending) narrator falls for a Swedish artist, Gwynn, who seduces him and then ruthlessly leaves. Her desertion is spurred by her affection for Eyebrows, a deceased dog who proves to have been her one true love: “You’re just like Eyebrows…with your damaged sense of forever,” Gwynn tells our hero. She ditches him after a night filled with romance-novel-style drivel, and sweetly, the narrator, neither frog nor prince nor even dog, sounds surprised. Usurped by a dead dog, he becomes a sympathetic character in spite of his unapologetic quest for raw physical intimacy.
The most evocative stories seem to have been borrowed from Wintner’s own family life. In the wonderful “Lower Case E’s,” a wry account of growing up with a Jewish mother and an Orthodox granny, the speaker equates piety with the accrual of points “scored by baking. More points are available by making the dough from scratch….More points are made by baking entirely too much, which can lead to a grand slam in the ninth….My Grandmother is a pro.” Even greater scoring opportunities lie in relation to health “since all illness was kept secret by the ill, this either to score points or at least to establish an excellent prospect for scoring—to actually die without the first complaint? Oy! The points!” In a more serious episode of the same tale, the hapless narrator is ostracized for killing Jesus. “That’s stupid,” the child reasons. “I’m only ten.” He turns to his faith in this moment of need, seeking solace and finding little. “If I’d have been black I would have known all along,” he finally posits, trying to justify the cruelty of a grade-school anti-Semite. It is such consistent, straightforward naivete, couched in irony, that manages to salvage what could otherwise be seen as unpalatable ramblings.
Hagan’s Trial requires a leap of faith by the reader, who must push bravely past the sepia-toned cover and the pretentious chapter divisions to find its entertaining cache of solipsistic anecdotes. Although Wintner’s random chronology results in a slight case of literary whiplash, his crisp satire is pleasingly tongue-in-cheek.