Mid-American Review fiction staff selected “The Retch” by Colten Dom for publication in Volume XLII, Number 2.

“The Retch” is one of those stories that contains seemingly incompatible subjects: on the literal level, it is about dog vomit; on a thematic level, it delves into marriage, family, nostalgia. One of the pleasures of the story lies in this unexpected pairing, the way in which the surface conflict of the story subtly explores the underlying conflicts of the protagonist, Queenie, through a balance of pathos and humor. What starts as a fairly ordinary occurrence (the family dog, Bee, eating something she shouldn’t and throwing up on the carpet) quickly escalates into the absurd, as Bee begins regurgitating objects she couldn’t possibly have eaten. First, it’s items from the owners’ childhoods, then unnaturally large objects (“a golf club or an intact model ship”), and eventually orbs that resemble fish eggs “warm to the touch, with the texture of a flayed grape and the smell of a leather armchair gone rancid in the rain.” 

As evident in the above description, Dom’s language is striking, with attention to sensory details that make even the impossible feel physically real. The opening paragraph is rich in sensory details packed into rhythmic sentences: “There are hooks made of sound: the slap of sex, the generic jingle of the nightly news or the cacophony of your husband sneezing. There are pop song sippets of adolescence, guitar licks that drag you back to high school. And jaunty radio realty commercials, dropping through time to mom and dad and the typical divorce, leaving your childhood toys behind to guard the leaky attic where they became toothpicks for a family of raccoons.” The poetic syntax, alongside the story’s absurdity, renders the familiar conflicts of domestic life unfamiliar and therefore new.

The story as a whole is built around pattern—Bee vomiting increasingly unbelievable things—but continually moves in directions the reader could not anticipate. George Saunders, writing about David Barthelme’s “The School,” describes this kind of structure as a series of “gas-stations” that propel the reader forward. While advancing the pattern, the writer “fling[s] us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is. . . introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us” (177). The patterns and surprises of “The Retch” accelerate the story forward in unexpected, but nonetheless fitting, directions. The ending, in which Bee vomits a web that slowly forms into a house, provokes questions about Queenie’s relationship to the domestic sphere and her family, particularly things she has kept inside herself that ultimately must come out, however messy and unpleasant that might be.

––Jane Wageman, Mid-American Review

Note from the editors: This essay contains a quote from “The Perfect Gerbil: Reading Barthelme’s ‘The School'” from The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2007, pp. 175-185.