While this is one of the funniest books I've ever read, it's also extremely complicated and in places, very disturbing. It's disturbing to think that anyone would focus on the violence in this book and not see the goodness it possesses. Below is a partial breakdown of some of the elements, but not all:
TITLE OF THE BOOK: Strekfus, the main character, is a precocious six-year old who insists on using the Latin names for things (plants, flowers, animals). At one point, the African-American housekeeper insists that he use the phrase the "bark of the Dogwood" instead of the one he is using: bark of the cornus florida. This, while he's watching his father practically beat to death a young sapling. Strekfus never does acquiesce, at least until he titles the book, "The Bark of the Dogwood." It's his homage to the housekeeper after finding out exactly what her life was all about, and the incredible sacrifice she made for him. But given McCrae's penchant for word games (many of the names are anagrams), it's impossible to believe he didn't mean for "The Bark of the Dog" (without the wood) to mean something. There are myriad dog themes snarling through this book, and at one point, he's even reading a book by Truman Capote titled "The Dogs Bark." There are also two myths surrounding the Dogwood tree. McCrae tells us one, but only hints at the other. The first centers around the fact that if you beat a dogwood tree, it will bloom more profusely in the spring. This is one giant metaphor for the fact that Strekfus is an abused child. He's "blooming" by writing this book-the one you're reading. He's making something out of his life regardless of the bad experiences he's had. The second myth centers on the fact that supposedly the cross Christ was crucified on was made from a dogwood tree. When Strekfus's father is seen beating the dogwood tree, it's a double metaphor for not only beating his son, but for wrestling with the horrible overuse of religion that his family has been serving up for generations.
TRUMAN CAPOTE: Capote is a main influence for this novel. One often feels at times that McCrae is actually channeling the voice of Capote. Truman Capote's real name was Streckfus Truman Persons. McCrae has obviously done his homework, for Capote fans will recognize the reference to the short story "Dazzle" from his "Music for Chameleons," in which Capote is coerced into stealing something to pay off a Voodoo priestess. The connection continues with the beginning of a story in "Dogwood" where McCrae purposefully imitates TC and his story "Children on Their Birthdays." The Capote story starts off "Yesterday afternoon the six-o'clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit." The McCrae chapter starts: "At exactly eleven fifty-three, the M29 bus ran over and killed Mr. Brad Castratis." There are too many connections to go into, but if you want to look for them, they're there: Streckfus reading "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the female roommate with the twelve-inch cigarette holder a la Holly Golightly, the "snake" theme running through the book (Capote had a fascination with snakes.) There's even a scene toward the end of the book where a New Orleans dowager's glass eye comes rolling down the stairs---reminiscent of the red tennis ball that continually made its way down the stairs in Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms." As if this weren't enough for "over the top McCrae," it's also a reference to Helen Keller and the fact that she had both of her eyes replaced by artificial ones ("Helen Keller: A life" by Dorothy Herrmann). Remember that each chapter starts with a Helen Keller quote? This guy knows his stuff.
FORM OF THE BOOK: McCrae once again takes his cue from Capote. When Truman wrote his "In Cold Blood," he created a new type of "hybrid" novel---one that could be read many ways. McCrae has done the same thing, and carried it to extremes. "Dogwood" can be read on purely the most superficial level for the good story that it is. Secondly, if you want to peel the layers off, they're there for the taking. Metaphors and symbols abound and you can spend years trying to decipher them all. Thirdly, there are anagrams, puzzles, and connections that go on and on. To really get everything, you'd have to read this book several times. As if this weren't enough, McCrae has created a book within a book. Actually it's two books, and each can be read separately and still work. They interlock in the most ingenious way, literally feeding off one another. The New York chapters can be read by themselves and make sense as one book. Then the southern "short story" chapters can be read and form another book, complete with plots, the same characters, and a satisfying ending. Most books fall neatly into one genre such as humor or romance. McCrae has created a book that is humor, horror, fiction, truth, documentary, and even fantasy.
COINCIDENCES AND CONNECTIONS: Everything and everyone in this book is connected somehow. If you're looking for a book with loose ends, this isn't it. Everything, and I do mean everything has a purpose. McCrae does this for a reason. The obvious connections are there to make you think (and for those who like a commercial-type book that even a non-reader can enjoy). But few will get this, for there are even more connections that the ones presented. Example: The characters of Roman Yapigacy and Strekfus are actually brothers. You will probably miss this unless you pay attention. There are myriad examples of this throughout the book. There's also the idea of a "gift" at the end of the southern chapters: "My whole life has been a gift." McCrae also gives the reader a gift by literally pulling all the strings together, all the connections, and tying it up in a neat package. Metaphors again. The only thing missing is the bow. Keep in mind that the main character in this book KNOWS the story. It's his job to piece it together and show you how everything is connected. There's also the "Six Degrees of Separation" idea that runs through the book. Also, Capote often said that Dickens was his favorite author and that he read and re-read him many times. McCrae obviously knows this and takes his cue, connecting people and events shamelessly the way Charles D. might have. And "Dogwood" is a Victorian novel, again following in the master's footsteps. Read on.
ANAGRAMS: Too many of these to count. Here's a few: Roman Yapigacy (gay pyromaniac); Brad Castratis (racist bastard); Sanseveria trifasciata (a fairest Caesarian visit); Danville (evil land); Ima Chitbill-Tallymen (I'm a mentally ill bi**h). Then there's Sanford Straussgirdle. If you scramble the letters in his name, you get the title of the two chapters he's in. Other than that, you wouldn't know it's the same person. The list goes on and on, with even some references to numerology. Some of the unscrambled anagrams are unprintable here. Given Strekfus's mind and the round about way it works (think autism again and one of the opening stories about how his mind works, or doesn't) it's no wonder he's tried to throw us off the track by writing what some people might call the "most obvious" types of connections. Dig deeper-it's all there.
INFANTACIDE: Okay. Here's the one part of the book that may turn some readers off. The part of the book that has everyone in an uproar. Yes, an infant gets murdered, but it's the "how" that is bothering so many people. I don't believe the book is supposed to be so much about child abuse as it is about the heroics of an African-American housekeeper in Alabama during the civil rights era. Still, the idea of the infant or "baby" is rampant throughout the book. The town that much of the action takes place in is called "Infanta, Alabama." Couple this with the opening scene which is violent, and the use of murder, even on a child, should not come as a shock. As someone has said, "this is not a book for the faint of heart." Just don't say that the horrific event was sprung on you; it wasn't-there are signs everywhere. Don't like violence? Then don't read the bible, world history, or the newspaper.
BOTTOMLINE: Violent, shocking, hilarious, complicated, well-crafted, and even tender, the unfortunate thing is that most people simply won't get everything this book has to offer or appreciate its merits. Greek drama is filled with coincidence, Shakespeare is full of shameless puns and jokes, and Dickens can border on the absurd. The Beach Boys never surfed and America's greatest "classical" music (Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein) was written by those of Russian/Jewish extraction. Want a perfect novel? Good luck finding it. In the mean time, this will do nicely till one comes along.