Of Hair, Humming, and Histrionics: A Review of Bark On by Mason Boyles

Review by Lee Dobecka

Bark On
by Mason Boyles
Driftwood Press
Feb 2023, Paperback, 374 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1949065190

I’d like to attach trigger warnings to this book for eating disorders/disordered eating and substance abuse. I mention it briefly in this review as well, but not in detail. Bark On centers on triathletes Ezra and Casper, and the disturbing events during and after eight months of training under an outcasted coach named Benji, whose approach to fitness is brutal and perhaps supernatural. There are four narrators that take turns heading chapters: Ezra, Casper, Benji, and Ezra’s mom, referred to simply as, “Ma”.  The point of view changes, also, which wasn’t too jarring. 

At times I was frustrated when I lost track of what character was being referred to in a flurry of pronouns, or when details were mentioned in passing that weren’t explained until later.

Bark On is not an easy-breezy read. It has a bleak and cerebral vibe. It’s equal parts surreal and sophisticated. An edge of grit laces everything, but there’s also poetry in the pages, an example being the terms, “A drowning drive” and “The comas of those commutes” appearing only a page apart. 

In Boyles’ world, hair and hums hold magic and anything can be a verb. I’ve not read anything quite like this book, and that’s a big plus. Of the four speakers, Casper’s voice is most engrossing, for both his unique diction and deep vulnerability. I felt protective of him, a sure-fire way to create an investment in the reader! Ezra, at first, acted as the “straight man” in this grimy pageant. His common sense grounded me in a whirled world of prose sometimes so expansive and philosophical that I felt adrift. Ma is like Ezra, but more self-aware. You can sense her years of experience in her words. Later in the book, when Ezra becomes less steady, Ma takes the place of straight man, though she definitely has her own unhealthy tendencies. Then there’s Benji, the most dark and complex character. He’s a monster and a victim. A host seeking parasites, forced to find definition only in relation to others. He doesn’t see, he senses-feeling his way forward in a spiritual yet very bones-and-blood way. Bark On explores the aching, primal feeling of needing to be needed with every character, but it’s most direct with Benji. 

I don’t think there was an ounce of small talk in this book. Everything had weight to it. It felt both refreshing and tiring, much like working out. This book speaks a lot on numbing emotions—whether with exercise, food, or drugs. So, it’s fitting that none of the characters express much emotion. It suits the story, but it left me feeling somewhat tense and worn out.

The ending felt rushed and the tone of it didn’t mesh well with the rest of the work. I’m also usually fine with lingering questions after reading a book, but with Bark On, the questions felt big enough that I was bothered by them. I’m still very glad to have read this book. I’m grateful for the stash of lingering images and concepts I gathered while reading, to mull over in the next weeks. I’d recommend this read to people who like a mysterious energy, a strong sense of place, and troubled, deeply human characters.

About the reviewer: Lee Dobecka (they/them) is a poet and novelist with a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. As a queer, neurodivergent person, Lee holds space for marginalized groups with their work. When not writing, Lee studies music and cares for their cat, Aziraphale. They can be found online at leedobecka.com and on Threads with the handle @wordsfromleetoyou.