Who doesn’t love New Yorker cartoons, especially those with dogs in them? Masters like Booth, Cullum, Barsotti, Shanahan and Steig can make even non-dog enthusiasts snicker — nary a “head scratcher” among them.
But the same cannot be said for dogs who show up in other areas of that famed magazine. Though I’ve been one of its devoted readers for 35 or so years, and have a “nose” for my favorite subject, I’ve scarcely noticed dogs in the New Yorker until recently. Even then, the dogs seem to have been kept at leash-length from and not fully integrated into much of the coverage given to them.
There is a certain urbane aloofness and detachment about the New Yorker writing style — it appears to be more feline than canine in nature. Perhaps that started with James Thurber, who was heralded for his dog writing. But as Adam Gopnik explains in this new anthology, The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (Random House), for Thurber, dogs were really stand-ins for men. So when he “wrote about dogs” he was “writing about men,” and especially “men” in opposition to women and wives, whom Thurber didn’t seem to like much.
There is a lot of Thurber in this collection; each of its rather banally organized chapters — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs and Underdogs — begins with one of his stories. There are also many contributions from droll, observational commentators like Susan Orlean (three entries) and Malcolm Gladwell (four, including the foreword). All of the book’s elements come from the magazine, including the artwork derived from its memorable covers, lively cartoons, lovely little drawings and “typographical mark-up pages.” Formatted and sized like the magazine, it comes in big at $45 and 400 pages. All in all, a hefty reading experience.
Most New Yorker readers will find the more recent pieces familiar, but the editors also dove into the magazine’s rich archives and pulled up a gem or two, such as “Down the Leash” by Angelica Gibbs (1951) a profile of Miss Blanche Saunders, who popularized obedience training in this country, “huping, pfuing and heeling” her way into posterity. Other more historic pieces, like the one from respected writer Alexander Woollcott (1928), would have been best left in the vault. There are quite a few entries with lost-dog themes (a particular favorite in shaggy-dog stories), and at least two about running with the hounds. I was pleased to see Maeve Brennan’s “The Door on West Tenth Street” (a tender story that has also appeared in The Bark); her work deserves to be read by a larger audience.
A piece that didn’t deserve another airing is here, too — Malcolm Gladwell’s highly controversial “What the Dog Saw,” a naïf, narrow profile of Cesar Millan. When it first appeared in 2006, many of us were astonished that Gladwell never questioned the theories or methods used by Millan but instead, chose to focus on how the man “moves” around dogs, asking dancers and movement specialists — not animal behaviorists, academics or trainers — for their analysis. Had he asked any of the “dog people,” they would have pointed out that the best dog training today relies on rational, effective and, yes, humane methods, not on anachronistic and ill-informed theories.
Very few works about our relationships with dogs make an appearance, but what I consider the finest piece in this collection, Jonathan Lethem’s story, “Ava’s Apartment,” falls in this category. It is masterful in its portrayal of how transformative, and unexpected, that relationship can be. Among a few others, I also admired Cathleen Schine’s achingly sad “Dog Trouble” and “Tapka,” touching fiction by David Bezmozgis.
As noted in its foreword, this anthology is about New York dogs. Thus, readers expecting a more expansive view of the dog world ought not be surprised that its perspective stops somewhere between the Hudson and East Rivers. Nonetheless, The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a very handsome package and one that will surely find its spot on many a dog lover’s coffee table.