Hero. Ishmael. Ramsey. Sophie. Bonnie.
Those are, in order of appearance, the names of thedogs — all mutts — with whom I have shared my life from the time I was 4 years old. And if you listen to Wade Rouse — which you most assuredly should, especially if you value laughter and wisdom — those names serve as the best autobiography I could ever concoct.
Forget milestones such as graduations, love affairs, promotions or fancy prizes. The real story of your life is recorded in a roll call of your pets.
In a new anthology with the cheeky title "I'm Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship" (New American Library), Rouse, who earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's school of journalism and is the author of sparkling humor books such as "At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream" (2009) and "It's All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine" (2011), has gathered 20 essays by well-known writers about their dogs. The essays are, for the most part, funny, snarky and hugely entertaining, and several are something more to boot: They touch on themes of connection and loss in simple, artful ways.
There are wonderful descriptions of dogs, such as Sarah Pekkanen's recollection of a pet from childhood in her essay, "Pimping Out Delilah": Cagney was "a genial, doddering fellow who had the befuddled air of someone who was perpetually searching for his eyeglasses." In his essay "Wuzsha, Wuzsha, Wuzsha!" Eddie Sarfaty recalls Ginger, a golden retriever, who was "athletic, with a glossy, amber coat, (and) reminded me of the thoroughbred-legged boys who shone in gym class and the popular girls who were forever combing their Farrah Fawcett hair."
Here is Beth Kendrick's tail-waggingly grand opening for her essay, "Are You Smarter Than a Terrier?": "I picked out Murphy the way I imagine a socially stunted middle-aged man might select an Eastern European mail-order bride: late at night, hopped up on processed snack foods, guided only by an Internet profile featuring a few grainy photos and a paragraph of personal history."
My favorite essay is the bittersweet "Peekapoo, Where Are You?" by Annabelle Gurwitch, an ode to a family pet that the author describes as "a barking ball of stringy hair." Despite its brief length, the essay says a great deal about well-meaning but misguided parents, and about the ability of children to read between the lines.
But the real star of this book is the dog who allegedly wrote the introduction — I admit to having my suspicions — and who is owned by comedian Chelsea Handler, host of the E! series "Chelsea Lately." With Hemingwayesque brusqueness, Chunk Handler describes himself thusly: "I'm a dog. A canine. A mutt. A fleabag."
The improbable journey from an animal shelter to a Hollywood mansion, Chunk continues, "made me feel like one of Brad and Angelina's adopted kids. Imagine that sense of surreal luck. You're living in Cambodia, and then one day Angelina Jolie swoops in and rescues you. … I'm like Chelsea's Maddox."
Rouse, 46, who lives in Saugatuck, Mich., with his partner of 15 years, Gary Edwards, had no comment about the rumor that Chunk, a chow-German shepherd mix who makes cameo appearances on "Chelsea Lately," received assistance in penning the intro. But he had plenty to say about the book itself, which combined two of his greatest passions: writing and dogs.
"I started thinking about how dogs had gotten me through my darkest times," Rouse said in an interview from his home. "The writers I contacted got on board right away. People seemed really responsive to the revealing the secrets of their relationships with their pets.
"We have these amazingly intimate bonds with animals that never leave our sides."
Rouse dedicated the book to Marge, a rescue dog who accompanied him, he writes, through "five books, three major life changes, thousands of words, millions of kisses," before succumbing this year at age 14.
Now Rouse and Edwards continue to share their home with Mabel, a dog who is smaller than Marge but who figures equally large in their affections.
As Chunk so sagely notes, not all pooches are as fortunate as Marge, Mabel and himself, which is why Rouse is donating a portion of his royalties to the Humane Society of the United States.
And just as a dog seeks out the softest spot on a new sofa on which to snooze, people seek out humor to help them cope and feel connected, Rouse said. When he was growing up "chunky and gay in the Ozarks," he said, his mother saw his pain and gave him a copy of "At Wit's End" (1965) by Erma Bombeck. It changed his life, he said, because it showed him how the ordinary stuff of life — small frustrations and routine indignities — could, when mixed with humor, create something lasting and accessible, something that transcends the superficial differences between people.
"I still have that book on my writing desk," Rouse said.
Laughter, of course, is the flip side of sadness; we grieve most profoundly over what has brought us the deepest pleasure and satisfaction. In the essay he contributed to the anthology, Rouse writes of a tender moment with Marge: "I cradled Marge's giant old head in my hands — because that's how we roll — and the two of us chatted about this strange world, this world of strays, of mutts and men, all of whom have to overcome great odds to find the perfect someone who loves us unconditionally, who embraces our quirks and neuroses, that special someone who, quite simply, speaks our language."
Wade Rouse will appear at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. Admission is $20 and includes a copy of the book, gifts, and a wine and cheese reception. For more info, check bookcellarinc.com or call 773-293-2665.
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