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Andrea Walker

Andrea Walker is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.

Culture: Reviews
The New Yorkers
Sarah Crichton Books, 304 pp., 2007; $24

In this droll, effervescent novel, Cathleen Schine transports her readers to a single block on the upper west side of Manhattan, where the lives of the once-isolated residents become as entwined as their dogs’ leashes.

Jody is a middle-aged music school teacher who has lived in the same studio apartment for 20 years, along with her stately, oversized Pit Bull mix Beatrice, a dog “so white it was almost pink.” Jody is scarcely aware of how lonely she is until, while walking Beatrice, she crosses paths with Everett, a sullen 50-year old divorced scientist. Everett thinks Beatrice looks like “an enormous lab rat” and disdains canine companionship: “Dogs to him were inconveniences. The very word was used in phrases that were exclusively negative: someone dogged your steps or there were dog days on which you were dog-tired. Old books were dog-eared. You lay down with the dogs and woke up with fleas, after which you went to the dogs.” In spite of this, Jody finds herself drawn to Everett, wondering if a warmth lies beneath his cold exterior.

Other characters include Polly, a loquacious 26-year-old copy editor and her aimless but attractive brother George, who move into the apartment just below Everett’s that becomes vacant when (the caprices of Manhattan real estate being what they are) the previous tenant commits suicide. Polly discovers a mewling, honey-colored puppy abandoned in the closet and decides to adopt him, a decision that will radically alter the circumstances of her life.

Jamie, the gay father of five and proprietor of the Go-Go Grill, where much of the novel’s action takes place, welcomes dogs to his restaurant (his two Cairn Terriers are regular fixtures), which prompts Doris, another anti-pooch person, to sniff, “This is not Paris.” Doris is, as Schine viciously but humorously describes her, “a thin, nervous person with a perpetual tan of an alarming hue not usually observed in nature…. She was older than she looked, but that was only because she looked no particular age at all. Some people seem to be well preserved. Doris seemed to be, simply, preserved.” Doris’s massive white SUV becomes a frequent watering post for Beatrice, and when Doris mounts a campaign to restrict the rights of dog owners, the motto for her flyers, “printed to look like the revolutionary New Hampshire motto, complete with snake” is Don’t Urinate on Me.

Schine creates indelible impressions, often in the space of a single sentence. On Everett’s ex-wife, whose profusion of possessions contrasts sharply with his minimalism: “Alison collected things, but so many of the things she collected turned out to be things that held other things she collected.” She also gives an authentic rendering of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of New York neighborhoods, where each block is a world unto itself and dogs become an excuse to interact with one’s neighbors, abridging the formalities generally associated with such processes (the phenomenon of knowing a wealth of detail about another person without knowing their name will be familiar to anyone who frequents a dog park). Jody in particular “found these anonymous encounters curiously intimate.” The people she meets on her walks—“the man with the shaky old blind Bernese Mountain Dog [who] was worried about his son getting into a good college. The cellist with her Beagle whose belly was more or less distended, depending on what cabinet he had gotten into the night before…the handsome young man from the Netherlands with the new Keeshond puppy…the exquisitely turned out Parisian widow with her small, bizarrely shaped three-legged mutt”—require her to break out of her solitude and make her part of a community. And it is the idea of communities—how they are formed, and what they do for their members—that gives heft to this comic novel.

The text of the book is interspersed with lively, winsome drawings by artist Leanne Shapton of the many breeds mentioned in its pages. Together with Schine’s engaging writing, they make The New Yorkers that rare hybrid: a novel of style and substance.
 

Culture: Reviews
Dog Years
HarperCollins, 207 pp., 2007; $13.95

Mark Doty is a critically acclaimed poet whose verses have appeared frequently in this magazine. Now he has turned to nonfiction to chronicle the impact that two Retrievers, one black and one golden, have had on his life. Arden is the gentle and affectionate black Retriever puppy Doty adopts from an animal shelter in Vermont. Beau is the more silly and rambunctious Golden Retriever/Saluki mix Doty brings home to serve as a companion for his dying partner, Wally. Wally is confined to bed and seeks “some small, encompassable creature to sleep next to him and lick his face” after Arden becomes too depressed to perform such duties.

Beau turns out to be bigger than bed-cuddling size, notwithstanding the fact that he is severely malnourished. He has a “chest so thin that the bone at the center stuck out sharply, the prow of a slender blond boat,” and is depicted as a “delicate and rather gangly fellow, all sharp bony edges.” But he also seems the “calmest, dreamiest dog,” with an open, steady gaze and happily thumping tail, which makes him the perfect candidate for the job. Little does Doty know that this placidity is the result of the sedatives still in Beau’s system post-neutering, and that a much different personality will emerge once they wear off! In spite of the sudden change in energy level, Beau’s playful intensity, limitless appetite and ceaseless curiosity (he has a propensity for bounding over fences to rummage in neighboring garbage cans) bring new life to the household.

Dog Years is both a buoyant celebration of life and a heartbreaking meditation on mortality, both human and animal. It is clear from Doty’s descriptions of the events surrounding 9/11 that part of his impetus for writing this book came from an attempt to understand how the deaths of so many have had an impact on the living. He goes on to chronicle, in unflinching detail, his lifelong struggle with depression, the unrelenting work of grieving, and the ways in which dogs (his own and, in one instance, a stray dog in Mexico) serve to pull humans back into the land of the living. As a poet, Doty notes his propensity to “fix on the darker note … I think the only kind of beauty I can see is the kind that’s right on the verge of collapse.” But it is precisely at these moments that Beau or Arden arrive onstage to do something (stealing and swallowing a favorite glove, rolling in a “queen-size mattress” of blubber from an autopsy done on a beached whale in Provincetown), their way of saying Notice me, come back.

In one of the book’s most moving episodes, it is Beau who actually prevents Doty from attempting to drown himself. The author steps back from the edge because he knows that Beau, now aged and requiring daily injections of saline and electrolytes for his failing kidneys, would struggle to rescue him: Beau saves his owner by his sheer presence. “Somehow my faith in human attachments, my belief in the cementing bonds that hold us all together, just wasn’t there,” Doty writes. “It was only the trusting silent fellow at my feet, who kept looking down into the racing wake through the small hole at the base of the ferry railing—it was that trust, that day, that kept me in the world.”

Doty weaves snippets of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (Dickinson being no stranger to grief and black moods herself) into the short interludes or “Entr’actes” that separate the chapters of his memoir. Many of these intermissions read like luminous prose poems, dense with detail: “Rain on the old wood of the doghouses, rain on the spots where dozens of visiting dogs have slept or peed, rain picking out the flowers of the field, each with their definite scent, intensifying the odiferous leaves.” Doty is especially good at demonstrating how dogs can connect us to nature and “wildness,” in a time when more and more people are becoming insulated from such things: “The wild intensity of [Beau’s] race up the steep cliff of a high bluff on the ocean side of the Cape in Truro. The salt-marsh smell rising from his body after a walk in June (there is nothing else in the world that smells exactly like a golden retriever dipped in a salt marsh).” In another moment, Doty observes—in a passage so lovely it deserves to be quoted at length—how the mundane activity of walking Beau and Arden gives him a feeling of belonging to something larger than himself:

"Walking is an affirmation of physical life. We’re in the world, we’re breathing, we’re together. I move in a straight line, more or less, along the paths, and sometimes the dogs are right in front of me or beside me, but more often, they are threading around the path, padding in the woods or thickets or marsh on either side of me. I begin to conceive of us as one extended consciousness, reaching out in different directions, sensing, our bodies making a braided trail but our awareness overlapping. That helps, just now, when a self seems fragile, erasable. With the two of them, I’m joined to something else, perception expanded, not just stuck there in the world in my own bereft, perishable, limited body."

One of the lessons of Doty’s work is that dogs, with their poignantly shorter lives, function as placeholders for our reflections. They make time concrete rather than abstract, serving as “centers around which memory coheres.” It is likely that Beau and Arden will continue to serve this function not only for Doty, but for readers of this engaging and highly recommended book.