It was either Groucho Marx or a T-shirt slogan attributed to him that said: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." To be fair, dog ownership has traditionally required slightly more give and take than having a library card. You have to throw down a little kibble, clear space next to the radiator, and pledge to look the other way while the occasional butt is sniffed. In return, dog owners have expected proportionally modest rewards such as a touch of loyalty and a nonjudgmental nuzzle at the end of a hard day.
But a new breed of dog owners is breaking this mild social compact, and they're churning out books to be devoured like so much chow. In the updated paradigm, it's not enough for a dog to be a pal; now he has to be a soulmate. In the old days, dogs were stand-ins for our forbidden desires to scarf down meals, sleep all day, take candy from babies, and crap on the lawns of our neighbors -- more or less. Nowadays, they are stand-ins for the actual friends and lovers so many of us are too busy to cultivate.
The first step in the reimagining of canine psychology is to give the issue the patina of hard science. In If Dogs Could Talk, Hungarian animal behaviorist Vilmos Csanyi relies on bar graphs and footnotes to prove that "in contrast to all other animals, dogs that love their masters are capable of empathy." Most of the book is devoted to the daily ministrations of Csanyi's beloved Flip and Jerry. But because the only thing more boring than hearing about a stranger's kids is hearing about his pets, Csanyi carefully links his personal observations to the larger scientific cause.
And he does so convincingly. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that if they aren't perfectly sentient, they aren't exactly oblivious either. Why else would people put their dogs out of the room when it comes to a certain romantic time of night? You wouldn't think twice about having sex in front of your chrysanthemums.
Canines have invaded the memoir genre. No longer content to skulk around the periphery, dogs are now key players in their masters' lives -- oh, wait, we're not supposed to call ourselves their masters anymore. In Michael Konik's travelogue Ella in Europe, the white mongrel is the indispensable character, and journalist Konik just follows her around, vicariously experiencing the Old World at ground level. He is fearlessly schmaltzy: "Ella has licked away my tears when I've been sad, and hopped on her hind legs with me when I've been happy." Statements like this would only be over-the-top if they weren't shared by millions of readers who are convinced that a dog's relationship with the world is every bit as nuanced as a human's. So it's only appropriate that outside the Reichstag in Berlin, rather than having a long-awaited and happily symbolic pee, Ella stands in apparent meditation, seeming to "have instinctively understood the vital message that, after centuries of vain effort, we humans are still trying desperately to hear."
Merrill Markoe takes a different but related tack in What the Dogs Have Taught Me. Her dogs are also elevated to Most Favored Friend status, but instead of being graceful they're just as neurotic and misanthropic as the author herself. Markoe is an Emmy-winning comedy writer, and it shows, such as when she transcribes actual dialogue -- invented, one hopes -- between herself and her pets, or gets down on the floor to learn the sublime joy of gnawing on a carpet pad. This is shtick, sure, but it's funny shtick. Markoe intersperses dog stories with tales of the single life, and you get the feeling that she dates so that people won't accuse her of loving mutts more than men. Which, of course, she does.
It's fine to talk about your dog, fine to guess at his innermost thoughts, but when you actually start to channel your pet, this is more a sign of trouble than of love. In Sight of Hound, the semiautobiographical first novel by Pam Houston -- who became famous by writing rugged accounts of her backcountry experiences -- point of view shifts at a dizzying pace. One of the narrators is Dante, a preternaturally goodhearted wolfhound who improves the lives of everyone he meets. Clearly, this is an animal too noble to emerge from fiction unscathed. But when Dante, writing with the pitch-perfect hint of nostalgic pluck, says, "The cancer has come back, as cancers sometimes will," Houston slips straight from empathy to bathos. This is a dog we're talking about here, right?
The trouble is, dogs aren't human. Sure, you can bake the vegan "Island Taro Snacks" in Patricia Leslie's cookbook The Wholesome Dog Biscuit, but would this be doing your dog any favors? You might like quinoa and tempeh, but wouldn't Wolfie prefer the slightly greenish pound of hamburger that's been sitting these past few days at the back of the fridge? Just because Britney Spears and Paris Hilton provide spa treatments and personal sushi chefs to their darling pooches, it doesn't mean that the rest of us should feel guilty for treating our dogs like dogs.
The beauty of dog ownership is the fact that we can relate to dogs in ways that would be totally inappropriate if they were humans. If dogs could talk they might just bore us the way people do, retelling stories they heard on NPR and fretting about whether we're on the verge of a bubble in kennel prices.
What's with all these books? Well ... welcome to big business in a love-starved world. Somewhere in Hollywood a producer is rubbing his hands and dreaming of a new-age remake: In this version, when Timmy cries for help, Lassie won't go anywhere. Instead she'll just start the clock on a fifty-minute hour and say, "So tell me about your childhood."
If Dogs Could Talk
By Vilmos Csanyi
North Point, $25
By Pam Houston
Ella in Europe
By Michael Konik
The Wholesome Dog Biscuit
By Patricia Leslie
What the Dogs Have Taught Me
By Merrill Markoe
What the Fork - December 6, 3:51 PM
What the Fork - December 1, 1:56 PM
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