INFLATING A DOG:
The Story of Ella's Lunch Launch
by Eric Kraft

Publisher:  Picador/St. Martins press

Pub Date:  Fall 2002

Format:   Hardcover

Brief Description
A new novel by the author described by
Newsweek as "the literary equivalent of Fred Astaire dancing: great art that looks like fun."
(see below for Full Description)

 

 

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Reviews

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2002 (starred review):

Kraft’s multivolume chronicles of Peter Leroy (Leaving Small’s Hotel, 1998, etc.) continue with this often hilarious bittersweet tale of adolescence recollected in tranquility; middle-aged Peter’s fictional improvement on the subject of his mother Ella’s checkered career as an independent businesswoman.

In a kaleidoscopic narrative that’s a little like a marriage of Marcel Proust and Mark Twain, Peter (a former teacher and author of a series of boys’ adventure books) treats his long-suffering wife Albertine (who’s his best critic) to a fantasized version of growing up absurd in the clam-rich municipality of Babbington, Long Island. Specifically, he imagines that the determined Ella found her commercial niche catering "elegant excursions" aboard her newly purchased clam boat (whose previous owner had neglected to mention that the vessel leaked). The story also fulfills 13-year-old Peter’s fantasy needs in the person of schoolmate sexpot (and the Leroys’ collaborator) Patti Fiorenza. That’s about it—and it’s enough, in a charmingly loopy come-in-and-sit-a-spell tale that segues comfortably among past and present, truth and lies, the main point and ingenuous digressions, including explications of technical matters that stimulate Peter’s urge to tinker with everything he touches (not excluding Ms. Fiorenza). One particularly impassioned chapter is presented as a playlet. Interpolated explanatory ones employ illustrations and diagrams to dwell on such nautical arcana as "The Mysteries of the Jet Pump Revealed" and "Morphology and Aesthetics of Clam Boats." The title metaphor, as explained in an epigraph from Don Quixote, assumes several risible forms, and Peter’s determination to explore all the mysteries of environment, heredity, and (especially) sex is memorably expressed in such deadpan wonders as the episode entitled "Martinis with the Merry Widow" and "a doo-wop version of Stanza XI of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Esthetique du Mal.’" And Kraft wraps it up with a fabulous final chapter in which Peter says his final farewell to the redoubtable Ella.

Glorious stuff. Is there no end to the (obviously autobiographical, irresistibly entertaining) permutations of Peter Leroy? Let’s hope not.

 

Booklist, Nancy Pearl, June 1 and 15, 2002 (starred review):

It’s always a welcome occasion when a new novel is added to Kraft’s ever-growing oeuvre, collectively called The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. His latest—the eighth installment—is no exception. Reading the Peter Leroy saga is akin to watching a champion juggler deftly keep dozens of balls in the air while executing an intricate double-time tap dance routine—all without breathing hard. In these books, which all take place in Babbington, a small town on the southern end of Long Island during the middle years of the twentieth century, Kraft explores the lives of the extended Leroy family and friends. The series is not written in chronological order, and although each novel can stand alone, reading them together certainly enhances the pleasure one takes from these comic masterpieces that are also testaments to the exhilarating power of memory. Inflating a Dog tells two stories: the attempt by Peter’s mother, Ella, to start a business, and 13-year-old Peter’s discovery of serious sexual longing, whose object is Patti (age 14). Sentimental, loving, raucous, wise, and great fun, this is simply not to be missed.

 

The New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Reese, August 25, 2002:

Starting in the mid-1970’s, Eric Kraft began publishing (initially self-publishing) a series of eccentric novels and stories about a winsome Long Island boy named Peter Leroy. Every few years since, he has provided another installment to this sprawling collection. Because the books aren’t written in chronological order, they don’t trace Peter’s life so much as add more layers to it, moving freely back and forth from Peter’s middle years to his childhood in the fictional town of Babbington, on Bolotomy Bay. They include photographs, diagrams, fragments of plays and other ephemera, forming an unpredictable, gentle and often charming literary collage.

‘’Inflating a Dog,’’ the latest Peter Leroy volume, is a novel about physical and spiritual buoyancy. It’s about keeping boats afloat and hopes aloft, and how, in one summer of Peter’s adolescence, he manages to do both. It isn’t Kraft’s best work, but it has some lovely moments.

At 56, Peter is looking back at a period in his early teens when his mother, Ella, was losing faith in herself and life’s possibilities. In an attempt to become something more than a bland housewife, Ella had started various crackpot businesses, from candy making to ‘’high-heel-low-heel convertible shoes.’’ None succeeded. ‘’Most of the time,’’ Peter observes, ‘’there was a deadness in my mother’s eyes, the blankness that comes with the expectation that nothing will make today different from yesterday or tomorrow different from today.’’

In 2002, we would label Ella ‘’depressed,’’ but in the wonderful invented idiom of the book she is ‘’deflated.’’ In the town of Babbington in the 1950’s, Peter reports, teenagers had devised a very precise vocabulary to describe the phenomenon of enthusiasm and all its nuances. They had started with the phrase ‘’blown up’’ — or, more elegantly, ‘’inflated’’ — to capture the feeling of being filled with amazement, delight and inspiration, and had come up with ever more exact locutions: ‘’When we suspected people of faking or exaggerating a response, we said that they were pumping themselves up. People who tried too hard, particularly those who wanted to make very sure that everyone saw how blown up they could get in the inflationary presence of art or nature, we called blimps or gas bags.’’

Over the course of the summer, Peter has two projects: to inflate his mother and to seduce Patti Fiorenza, a schoolmate of cartoonishly exaggerated sexual allure. The plot revolves around Ella’s purchase of a leaky clam boat (clams are a recurring Kraft motif, his madeleines) and her plan to offer catered cruises. Peter believes it is essential that Ella never discover the seriousness of the boat’s leak. ‘’Hope,’’ he explains, ‘’is like a warm breeze that lifts and lofts and carries us on when we hardly have the will to carry on otherwise.’’ Every night he sneaks away and pumps out the boat, so that his mother can proceed in ignorant bliss and, with luck, regain her zest for life. (The book’s title comes from a mystifying episode in ‘’Don Quixote’’ in which a madman inflates a dog, a difficult feat that is presented as the equivalent of keeping Ella’s dream intact.)

No one who has ever taken a creative writing course can have escaped the admonition to show, not tell. Well, so much for that old saw. Kraft does both, but his showing is far less effective than his telling. When he sets his characters in action, the book wobbles. The plot is undeniably original, but also far-fetched and haphazard; it’s not particularly funny, just kooky. Kraft is unfailingly and refreshingly generous with his characters, but, perhaps because many have figured in earlier novels, they aren’t richly developed here.

On the other hand, when he sits back and starts telling us, for example, about the invented language of 1950’s Babbingtonians, we’re hooked. Kraft’s erudite asides and abstract musings are what make ‘’Inflating a Dog’’ fascinating and sophisticated reading.

 

The Washington Post, Richard Grant, August 12, 2002:

Among writers of genre fiction — science fiction, horror and the like — the term "literary" is often used pejoratively. To call someone a literary writer is to imply that the poor sod is, shall we say, overbred. His plots are thin. His paragraphs ramble. His characters have hang-ups and unconventional relationships, and they sometimes, for no good reason, speak in French. He is highly self-conscious and may fall into the postmodern habit of winking at the audience, as if to say, "Yes, I am writing this book, and you are reading it; why kid ourselves?" The literary novelist (so goes the rap in the genre fraternity, to which I belonged for many years) is, above all, self-indulgent. He writes to please no one but himself. He abandons his story line, such as it is, to digress at chapter length about nothing much. He delights in parlor tricks such as switching fonts, satirizing other writers and puffing up the page-count with pictures and other "extratextual" gimmickry. In the end, his books are not about anything, really, but themselves; about a book being a book being written by a writer; or, as aptly put in a John Barth title, "About Aboutness." These charges having been made, my advice to novelist Eric Kraft is to plead nolo contendere. Kraft’s eighth and newest novel, "Inflating a Dog," gleefully commits every crime on the rap sheet and then some. The result is a sprightly, sly, sophisticated entertainment, light enough to digest in a long summer evening. Assuredly, it is not everyone’s cup of tea-with-madeleine. But it’s good fun for grown-ups, especially fans of Kraft’s earlier books, which include "Leaving Small’s Hotel" and "At Home With the Glynns." "Inflating a Dog" takes up again the saga of Peter Leroy, whose coming-of-age during the 1950s and ’60s in the fictional town of Babbington, Long Island, is the chief topic of Kraft’s fiction (along with, of course, "aboutness").

Peter’s life is anything but linear, and this installment carries us back to his 14th summer. Our protagonist, an only child, has begun to question his paternity — "How on earth could I be the son of that fool?" — and to take a lively interest in members of the female sex, two in particular. The year is 1958. Peter, as first-person narrator, sets the stage: "There was at that time a vogue for combining everything one might want in a particular area of interest or endeavor into ‘one handy package.’ . . . In cynics, Diogenes would have been everything one could have wanted in one handy package. In sexpots, it would have been Patti Fiorenza." Sexpot, which ambushes you, is quintessential Kraft, showing his regard for the word-as-object, a thing to be revealed at just the right moment, then left for the reader to examine. Here it evokes both a time and a thought-world, an attitude toward women. So does this stark epitaph for Peter’s mother: "She died in the night, as Ella Piper Leroy, housewife." It’s a cool trick, such close attention to plain (yet not simple) words — though perhaps giving a whole chapter to the word "blow" is pushing things too far. Mother and girlfriend, matron and nymph: These polar feminine types bracket Peter’s life during the summer of our story. Two questions obsess him: Can he rescue his mom from failure in her zany quest to escape the bondage of housework? And can he (please, please, please) go all the way with Patti Fiorenza? This being the book it is, Kraft does not prolong the suspense. He answers question No. 1 in the preface, and before long we have a pretty good idea where he’s headed with No. 2. But plot is not the point. Peter, in one of his frequent narrative digressions, describes his life-story-in-progress as "modified memoirs." The real topic here is not the way things happened, but the way happenings migrate into memory, and thence into art. A quote from Cervantes (given in Spanish and two different, "adapted" translations) opens the book, but the story’s presiding spirit is that of Marcel Proust. Kraft has long displayed a fascination with Proust’s deft memory games, his dream-inducing sentences, his experiments with time — to the point of allotting grown-up Peter a wife named Albertine. The Proustian influence runs as strongly as ever through "Inflating a Dog."

Peter does finally spring a little surprise: not a plot twist, but a revelation akin to Lawrence Sterne’s ending a long novel by declaring the whole thing "the story of a COCK and a BULL." In Kraft’s case, the statement is couched in terms of inflation — or, in plainer words, hot air.


Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002:

Kraft’s eighth installment (after Leaving Small’s Hotel) in the winsome series featuring the charming Peter Leroy is a cheeky, amusing look at the nature of the entrepreneurial dream. Narrated by the now adult Peter, the story takes place during his adolescence, as his mother, Ella, gets yet another idea in an endless string of outlandish business schemes. This time her fantasy is to establish a cruise line for the bay near their hometown of Babbington, Del. [!] Despite her husband’s smirking disapproval, she buys a clam boat and, with the help of Peter and his sexy girlfriend, Patti, begins to fix it up. The cruise line makes a splash in the community when Peter hits a channel marker during their elegant maiden voyage, dumping the mayor’s wife in the bay. The venture struggles after their first outing, until they get the idea to go downscale and paint the boat in garish tropical colors, a move that makes them a wild local hit. The rags-to-riches plot is a bit on the generic side, but Kraft turns the concept up a notch in the preface, in which Peter Leroy reveals that the happy ending is one he created to compensate for his mother’s endless "real life" failures, a gambit that allows room for plenty of tongue-in-cheek games with the reality-versus-fantasy theme. The book has some slow moments during the rather ordinary coming-of-age narrative in the early going, but once Kraft begins to work his clever conceit, this novel emerges as another memorable installment in his innovative series.

Newsday, Richard Gehr, July 21, 2002:

Reading Eric Kraft is at times like taking a dizzy tumble into Long Island Sound. As fine a novelist as the Island has produced, Kraft is the buoyant and brilliant presence behind a continuing eight-book serial novel collectively titled "The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy." Likewise, his fictional alter ego, Peter Leroy, is himself the author of several volumes in a series of hardy-boy exploits titled "The Adventures of Larry Peters." The onion skins may stop there, but the complex relationship of Kraft to his fictional memoirist is as richly detailed in its way, and a great deal funnier, than the masterpiece from which it can never be disassociated, Marcel Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time." Over the course of two decades, Kraft’s crafty and well-crafted books have pinballed among the various stages of Peter Leroy’s life. "Little Follies," published in 1995, collected nine novellas originally put out by independent Applewood Books beginning in 1982. I’m probably still fondest of those bite-size gems, yet anticipate each new Leroy story as an opportunity to proselytize on Kraft’s behalf to anyone who hasn’t dipped into his charming river of artfully fabricated recollections. As Herman Melville based his most famous work on the whaling industry, Kraft’s books involve the Island’s somewhat less flamboyant but no less evocative clamming culture. Kraft, who grew up in Babylon, at one time co-owned and co-captained a clam boat, which, according to the biography on his Web site, sank. A sinking clam boat happens to be the subject of the latest Peter Leroy novel, "Inflating a Dog." In this excellent addition to the Leroy canon, Peter recalls his mother’s attempt to establish a business in the family’s fictional hometown of Babbington. It is also a sexual coming-of-age story, as well as a way for Peter to reconcile himself with his parentage and mortality. One of Kraft’s more rewarding themes is that of conceiving and bringing to realization a project of some sort. Life is art in Kraft’s universe, and nearly everyone in it is a craftsperson, creator or critic of some sort. Dudley Beaker, the Leroys’ next-door neighbor, writes ironic ad copy for the Babbington Clam Council; his grandparents, the titular heroes of 1988’s "Herb ‘n’ Lorna," manufacture cunningly accurate erotic jewelry; and his friend Ariane Lodkochnikov becomes the walking work of art recounted in "What a Piece of Work I Am." His characters fail as often as they succeed, however, and "Inflating a Dog" in part concerns the compromises one makes in order to bring one’s endeavors to fruition. Ella Leroy’s prior failures, as Peter recounts in his preface, have included Ella’s TV Colorizer, Ella’s Cards for Forgotten Holidays and Ella’s Peanut Butter on a Stick. But this time the fictional author will make things right. Kraft uses his prefaces to add another level to what Peter calls his "modified memoirs." While some have been put off by his prefaces’ modernist musings, I’ve always been impressed by how deftly they invite the reader into the creative process. Kraft has observed more than once that every book, no matter its subject, is actually about the author. But in the prefaces, where Peter usually explains what he (Peter) has altered in his history, and why, Kraft calls into question the idea of omnipotent authorship. "Must it be as it was when the way it was was wrong?" asks Peter before telling us that most of what he is about to recount didn’t really happen. "No. Not while I’m around." The book may be about the author, but this author’s one slippery character. Thirteen-year-old Peter becomes his mother’s sidekick in his improved version of her story. With the assistance of school slut Patty Fiorenza, he assists her in buying the clam boat in which she plans to serve brightly tinted clam-dip sandwiches and Champagne to sophisticated Babbingtonians as Peter navigates the craft over Bolotomy Bay. The boat leaks, however, and much clever metaphorical riffing devolves around the notions of inflation and deflation as Peter secretly pumps and bails in order to protect his mother from the truth concerning its condition. "Hasn’t every boy everywhere at some time wondered whether he might be the child of some man other than his declared father?" asks Peter, who thinks so. Other forms of inflation and pumping thus come into play when Peter begins researching his parentage with the help of Patty. Kraft is one joyously kinky writer at times - a side of his artistic personality that probably climaxed in "At Home With the Glynns," which tells of Peter’s early-adolescent sexual adventures with a pair of fun-loving twins. The kicks are more Oedipal in "Inflating a Dog," however, in which the friendship of Patty the slut and Ella "the nut" leads to a delightfully twisted scenario: Ashamed of his father, Peter imagines he might have been sired by next-door neighbor Dudley Beaker. He shares his suspicions with Patty, who agrees to explore his fantasy by playing the part of his mother in a role-playing game in which Peter takes the part of would-be-worldly Dudley seducing, or being seduced by, a younger version of Ella. Life in Babbington, as Peter recalls it, is funny, sweet and sexy - and he makes one wish real life were as wonderful. The craft that eventually becomes Ella Lunch Launch, the imaginary successful successor to Ella’s Elegant Excursions, is a love boat of many dimensions. Kraft captures the adolescent pride and vanity of a boy whose "actions often seem, from the outside, bold and confident, but he is standing on the brink of folly," especially as he attempts to displace his father as his mother’s favored helpmeet. And in Peter’s benign and somewhat magical world of pasts recaptured, symbolic fathers are always around to lend a hand when necessary. "Inflating a Dog" ends darkly, however, with the death of Peter’s mother. While the book’s title and overriding metaphor come from "Don Quixote," Peter’s immediate inspiration was a dead, bloated animal he came across on the beach. Life goes on, however, and Kraft, as one writer has noted, is a virtual Fred Astaire among novelists. Digressions on clamming, the constitution of the soul and Bernoullian physics are tossed off with such verve and humor that the reader feels flattered and privileged to be invited to join Kraft’s remarkable, ongoing dance of time and memory.

Seattle Times, Michael Upchurch, July 11, 2002:

Two-thousand-two-hundred pages . . . and counting.

That, by my estimate, is where Eric Kraft’s shape-shifting, seriocomic, multi-volume "Peter Leroy" saga now stands. And with Kraft in such fine form in "Inflating a Dog," the latest installment, one can’t help wishing Peter’s story could continue forever.

Babbington, Long Island ("Clam Capital of America") is the center of Peter’s universe. And a singularly sunny vision of 1950s America provides the backdrop to most of his boyhood adventures.

In Kraft’s hands, however, the eight Peter Leroy books add up to anything but a routine coming-of-age tale. They’re packed with highbrow literary allusions, surreal advertising parodies, zanily precise technical illustrations (for school experiments and offbeat home projects), and a generous dose of low comedy. They’re also subject to sudden shifts in perspective, including prefaces by an older Peter alerting you to what really happened . . . which can differ considerably from the story that follows.

What obsesses Kraft is the juncture where memory and imagination collide with one another, thus imbuing mere "facts" with delightfully far-fetched meanings. Lately in Kraft’s work an element of midlife regret has come into play, as well.

In "Inflating the Dog," that regret stems from Peter’s sense that his now-dead mother, Ella, never got to do what she wanted with her life: start a little business, enjoy a little success and be something other than an ordinary housewife.

"Must it be as it was when the way it was was wrong?" the 56-year-old Peter asks himself. "No. Not while I’m around."

And so he invents a long-ago dream-come-true for Ella: a "quixotic undertaking" in which he assigns his 13-year-old self a pivotal role as her ever-fretting sidekick. That undertaking — coming on the heels of "Ella’s Cards for Forgotten Holidays" and other doomed enterprises — is a floating catering business, run in elegant style ... aboard a clam boat.

Two problems: The clam boat has a worrisome leak, and Babbington just isn’t ready for the kind of elegance Ella is offering.

Some readers may already have guessed that "Inflating a Dog" is Kraft’s riff on Cervantes’ "Don Quixote," with Ella in the role of fragile delusionary and Peter as a beleaguered Sancho Panza. The book’s title comes from a Cervantes passage about a rather unusual street performer. Throughout the novel, the phrase "inflating a dog" serves as a highly malleable figure of speech, covering almost any kind of effort to find fame, recognition or success in this world.

The book comes packed with innumerable subplots and side excursions. Chief among them: Peter’s speculation that family friend Dudley Beaker might have been his real father, which leads to some titillating role-playing and sexual experimentation between Peter and 14-year-old Patti Fiorenza (a Lolita-like head-turner). Digressions on doo-wop music, the slang usages of "blow," and the "Morphology and Aesthetics of Clam Boats" are part of the fun too.

Beneath all the foolery is a loving, tender homage to Peter’s (and Kraft’s) mother. This may not be the entrepreneurial adventure she had, but it undoubtedly is one she would have relished. And "Inflating a Dog" is just as much about "vanity and pride and folly and the way they get a boy — particularly an adolescent boy — into trouble." Kraft is being a little hard on his alter ego here. After all, Peter’s claims to clam-boat expertise are entirely inspired by his eagerness to be a good Cervantian sidekick to his mother.

If you’re new to Kraft, "Little Follies" — his 1992 book collecting the first nine Peter Leroy adventures — remains the best starting place. But for longtime fans, "Inflating a Dog" serves up some rueful-riotous pleasures as only Kraft can deliver them.

 

The Boston Globe, Barbara Fisher, July 28, 2002:

"Inflating a Dog," the eighth in an ongoing (since 1963) series of novels featuring Peter Leroy, is a hilarious riff on Don Quixote, on the desire for fame, the need for success, the power of fantasy. Peter, now a semi-famous writer of 56, reimagines himself as a horny, dreamy adolescent. As grown-up Peter, he rewrites his mother’s sad history, reworks his own disappointing paternity, and revisits his lust for hot Patti Fiorenza. For his mother, Ella, an enthusiastic inventor of such failures as Ella’s Cards for Forgotten Holidays, Ella’s High-Heel-Low-Heel Convertible Shoes, Ella’s Peanut Butter on a Stick, he creates a fabulous success: Ella’s Lunch Launch. For himself, he tests several theories of alternative paternity and enlists the very cooperative Patti to enact the theoretical conceptions with him.

It is his mother’s story that most engages him. He wants to reward her years of suburban yearning with immortal fame. He happily floats Ella’s Lunch Launch from a literally sinking ship and then for one glorious summer gives her "quite a ride," selling sandwiches and beer to local clamdiggers and pleasure boats around Bolotomy Bay. He reinvents himself as her sidekick, her Sancho Panza, and as her chronicler, her Don Quixote. Immortal fame is hers for one crazy, happy season. He makes his mother’s dreams come true - which is, as Don Quixote’s madman of Seville says, about as easy as keeping a sinking boat afloat, or inflating a dog.

The San Francisco Chronicle, Andrew Ervin, August 18, 2002:

Having trouble getting through Proust? Forget it. Read Eric Kraft instead. With the possible exception of William T. Vollmann’s "Seven Dreams" cycle, the eight volumes of Kraft’s fictional memoirs, known as "The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy," constitute perhaps the most ambitious and rewarding literary enterprise of our time.

In the latest installment, "Inflating a Dog," Kraft’s 59-year-old alter ego looks back upon his mother’s desire to make a name for herself as an entrepreneur. The failures of every previous attempt to make a buck don’t deter her from buying a used clam boat and offering luxury cruises on the bay. Unfortunately, the dinghy isn’t the most sea-worthy of vessels and, unbeknown to his mother, Peter must sneak out every night to bail out the bilge water and prevent it from sinking. To make matters worse, his mother’s business partner happens to be the school hottie on whom he has a crush.

Through it all, the adult Peter sometimes addresses the reader directly in order to comment on the events he’s describing, the faults in his own memories of things past, and the nature of story telling itself. The title derives from an episode in "Don Quixote" in which a madman uses a hollow reed to blow up a stray dog like a balloon. That image becomes a kind of theme from which Kraft (or is it Peter?) draws a series of variations until the novel resembles an extended meditation on the word "blow" and its many connotations.

"At some point toward the end of my adolescence," he explains, "I became embarrassed by my affection for beauty and by my tendency to become so quickly and fully inflated in the presence of it. I felt that I was in danger of becoming an aesthete, one of those people who is inflated by own marvelous susceptibility to inflation, one, ultimately, who inflates himself, a blowfish. "

Though thoroughly engaging, the story sometimes takes a backseat to brilliant word play and anecdotal philosophical dalliances. "Inflating a Dog" comes across as a deceptively easy read in which an expert comic timing belies an enormously important literary project in motion. The clever mingling of fiction and memoir evokes Proust at every turn but does so using a vernacular attuned to contemporary audiences. Even when you find yourself laughing aloud, it would be a mistake to take Eric Kraft lightly.

The Oregonian, Kate Bernheimer, Portland, Oregon, September 1, 2002:

"Inflating a Dog" is the newest installment of Eric Kraft’s fictional memoirs, known collectively as "The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy." Or, according to the author’s entertaining, eponymous Web site, "The Complete Peter Leroy (So Far)."

This series is smart, funny, warmly inviting and delightfully impossible to define. Like the preceding seven volumes, "Inflating a Dog" has a charming plot that works as an overlay for sophisticated meditations on language and storytelling.

What makes Kraft’s work so good is that it is completely original. That is, his work is truly impossible to define. It is not exactly satire, though the book begins with the ditty of a line "Bastardy has been good to me." And it’s not serious, exactly, though Chapter 11 begins, "The English language is a distributive language, one that conveys meaning partly through the meaning of discrete words within a sentence. . . ." And for some reason, the novel isn’t particularly cool, even though it’s ironic and uses a montage of devices, gestures so popular today. Or maybe it is cool, and I’m not, because I don’t know it is. Honestly, I can’t tell. The book — the entire series, which I read to prepare for this brief review — has me totally confused, in a good way.

"Inflating a Dog," set in the fictional town of Babbington, mainly regards Peter Leroy’s memories of his mother’s sad sack attempts at earning money. Briefly summarized, former attempts — inventing Peanut Butter on a Stick and Ella’s Cards for Forgotten Holidays — have failed. She has now bought a leaking clam boat she’ll use for tours. Peter secretly patches its leaks in the middle of the night. It sounds simple enough, yet the novel is wickedly funny and philosophical and weirdly timeless. The title itself refers to a scene from "Don Quixote," in which an insane man blows up a dog with a straw. This provides the novel’s overarching metaphor.

"There were already among us," its 59-year-old narrator reminiscences of his adolescence, "a few adepts who managed to achieve a kind of transcendental state of inflation." And from an early age, he tells us, the fictional narrator became, in the presence of beauty, hopelessly "fully inflated." Kraft’s writing has the same effect, and as mysteriously.

 

Memphis Commercial Appeal, Frederic Koeppel, July 28, 2002:

One must not launch a review with the word "hosanna," but I have to say, in any case, that I’m tickled pink by the return of Peter Leroy, memoirist and nostalgist, cynic and dreamer, in Eric Kraft’s new novel Inflating a Dog, set in the small town of Peter’s childhood and youth, Babbington, L.I., on Bolotomy Bay, where the clam is king.

Kraft, whose novels about Peter manage to be as light as a souffle yet as emotionally wrenching as grand opera - this is the eighth installment - plays, as always in his fiction, with the nature of memory and reality, "madeup" narrative and faux autobiography. Inflating a Dog concerns Peter’s mother, Ella Piper Leroy, and an entrepreneurial venture she finally succeeds at, after the failure of such ideas as Ella’s TV Colorizer, Ella’s Cards for Forgotten Holidays, Ella’s High-Heel-Low-Heel Convertible Shoe and Ella’s Peanut Butter on a Stick. But as Peter says after he tells us about his mother’s failures in the novel’s Preface, "Must it be? Must it be as it was when the way it was was wrong?" In other words, Peter Leroy, looking back on his youth, will now, in telling his mother’s story, recast it from failure to success, will create what his mother always wished for rather than merely record what actually happened. Of course none of this is "reality" anyway, is it? It’s fiction, yet Kraft, through the lively, curious, self-deprecating intelligence of Peter Leroy, constantly undermines our faith in the fictiveness of the fictional narrative and compels us to believe in (at least to accommodate to) the exigencies of "real" life.

Not that this fiddling with reality and memory, this rewriting of personal history matter. As books by Eric Kraft usually are, Inflating a Dog is simultaneously delightful, provocative, poignant and deeply satisfying. (And all the more satisfying since the last Peter Leroy novel, Leaving Small’s Hotel, was uncharacteristically schematic.) Peter lends success to Ella’s plan by becoming her sidekick, a Sancho Panza, as it were, to his mother’s quixotic vision of remodeling an old clam boat and taking customers for elegant excursions on the bay with champagne and multicolored finger sandwiches. He does this chiefly, unbeknownst to Ella, by keeping the Arcinella afloat. Wily old Captain Macomangus sold them a sinker, requiring Peter to work secretly every night all summer bailing the boat out (before managing to foist it off on a couple of guys as green as he had been).

Peter also draws into his mother’s plan the incomparable Patti Fiorenza, the school tramp - at least she dresses the part and carries the reputation - who brings not only enthusiasm and resourcefulness to the enterprise but provides Peter, who imagines himself as burdened with a sign that says "Nice Harmless Little Boy," with his sexual initiation in chapters that test the poles of identity and role-playing.

As many teenagers do, Peter doubts that his real father, who owns a garage and watches television every night after dinner, could be the actual father of Peter Leroy or the "true" husband of Ella Piper Leroy, woman of dreams. So he elects as his possible sire Dudley Beaker, a next-door neighbor now deceased. When Dudley’s widow hires Peter to watch the house while she goes away for the summer, Peter and Patti meet there and begin a speculative re-enactment in which Peter plays Dudley and Patti portrays the young Ella Piper, each ripe to entice the other in a frisson-inducing hint of mother-son seduction.

For its brevity (242 pages), Inflating a Dog is packed to the gunwales with the incendiary hungers, slippery bravado and rampant uncertainties of adolescence. These elements are particularly brutal for a sensitive, self-conscious lad - destined to be the author of the Larry Peters adventure books for boys - for whom the borders of hope and despair, love and sorrow, confidence and abysmal self-doubt run closely together. Kraft exercises considerable skill on these matters, especially in lyrical passages that epitomize the secret dreams and yearnings of a soul in the making, a fool for beauty who still finds beauty suspect because "beautiful things had the power to rob me of my reason, making me susceptible to romance and guile."

Inflating a Dog proves once again that Eric Kraft is a writer of magical verbal and narrative invention. The novel’s various threads, its complications of character and plot, its reality-bending notions of showing and telling snap together, finally, with a gentle, inevitable, tear-inducing click. From the moment that Patti breaks into a doo-wop rendition of Stanza XI of Wallace Stevens’s poem Esthetique du Mal to the mishaps and adventures aboard Ella’s Elegant Excursions - when the mayor’s wife falls into Bolotomy Bay - to the novel’s consistent texture of expectation crowded by illusion and innocence darkened by experience, Inflating a Dog is downright elevating.

 

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