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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.

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