Heroic Measures

Knopf, 208 pp., 2009; $23
By Jill Ciment
Reviewed by Laurel Maury, May 2009, Updated March 2021

Author of The Tattoo Artist and Small Claims, Jill Ciment makes a deft sortie into dry realism with an unlikely hero: a 12-year-old Dachshund. This slim book concerns Alex and Ruth, a fairly normal, elderly, childless couple on New York’s Lower East Side who have just put their apartment on the market. Their shining light is Dorothy, their aging Dachshund, acquired as a puppy when Ruth retired from teaching.

It’s a sad truth that you can do everything right, be a good, creative, even honorable person, and still have your life amount to less than a tin of beans. Alex fought in the war, Ruth stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee; yet in the end, they find themselves beset with an emptiness that even they puzzle over. Dorothy and the brightness she brings are the only things that keep this couple from being a walking cliché of small lives barely lived.

On the day an open house is scheduled, Dorothy wakes up paralyzed. This is also the day that a would-be terrorist shuts the Lincoln Tunnel. While on their way to the vet, Ruth and Alex decide that they will authorize heroic measures to save their dog. Later, rude, predatory apartment-hunters walk through their home as they wait anxiously by the phone for news of Dorothy. The story of the terrorist attack unfolds and, instead of dreading possible casualties, all they can think about is how the news will affect competing bids.

Ciment has produced a literary work that is driven by the idea that life has little meaning, then throws in a loving dog to knock that idea off track. For example, while recovering from her operation, Dorothy receives a tasty bit of fast food from the vet. “She licks up every last drop, and when the taste is gone, she washes his fingers in gratitude.” That simple pleasure and Dorothy’s response are rays of pure light that transform Ciment’s small gray world.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 54: May/Jun 2009

Laurel Maury reviews for NPR and writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times Book Review; she lives in New York.