Arts & Entertainment

'Nose Down, Eyes Up' by Merrill Markoe

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Merrill Markoe's work keeps going to the dogs. Literally. As in her previous novel, "Walking in Circles Before Lying Down," this one features dogs who talk to humans, providing most of the best lines in the work.

The dogs of "Nose Down, Eyes Up" are far and away the most appealing characters, which Markoe, in the voice of her first-person narrator, a Malibu handyman and ne'er-do-well named Gil, pretty much owns up to in the first lines of the book. "If you ask me, most people are a pain . . ."

It's easy to imagine Markoe's muses -- think mongrel faces, shaggy fur, wagging tails and wet tongues. Dog is her copilot, indeed. Sure, Markoe is an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, a sometime talk-radio host, an essayist and occasional television producer as well as being a satirical novelist, but let's not forget her ultimate contribution to American popular culture: creator of the "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment on "Late Show With David Letterman." The misanthropic edge that characterizes most of Markoe's work and biting humor is often softened by this recurrent theme of hers: The selfish, destructive, narcissistic nature of the human species can always be brought to some level of, um, humanity through the redemptive relationship with animals -- dogs in particular.

That is certainly true of Gil. Once something of a piano prodigy, he's idled away most of his life never fulfilling his potential, or so think his mother and his ex-wife. Long having abandoned his musical inclinations, he skates by as a caretaker for a rich couple's vacation property and lives with Jimmy -- a Labrador who bears a resemblance to Gil and, having been raised by him since a pup, believes himself to be Gil's son. There's also Fruity, Cheney and Dink, three mutts rescued by Gil's sometime-girlfriend Sara, a professional animal communicator and all-around well-meaning but clueless New Age yahoo.

Ironically, it's cynical Gil and not Sara who actually does talk to the animals -- in particular to Jimmy, who is a kind of motivational speaker in the universe of dogs. Gil comes upon Jimmy holding court with the neighborhood pack, delivering a lecture that has special resonance for most of this book:

"Understanding people is a hit-or-miss business," said Jimmy, "because people are unpredictable. They project their thoughts onto you. That guy you live with sees you as an extension of his personality. He can't imagine that you have a set of thoughts that don't match his."

Things quickly get complicated for Gil and his pack when the rich couple return to their vacation house, forcing Gil to find a place to live temporarily. Gil's easiest option, to move in with Sara, turns out not to be so easy, landing him squarely back in the place he's been trying to avoid: at his mother's house, facing her disappointment and his brother's success as a one-hit wonder who supposedly penned the '70s pop hit "Undercover Angel."

Meanwhile, Gil's chance meeting at the grocery store with Eden, his femme fatale ex-wife, eventually leads to Jimmy going down his own road of discovery. When Jimmy learns he is not actually part human, he insists on meeting the rest of his family, who happen to live with Gil's ex. Master and dog eventually come to a similar epiphany: Family is never truly what you think it to be, or what it pretends to be. And, furthermore, what a family is or isn't should have no bearing on what you choose to be. Before they arrive at that understanding, however, there's the sudden, threatening wildfire that seems to be requisite in all recent novels dealing with L.A., as well as a breakup and bumbling sex scenes.

True to form, in "Nose Down, Eyes Up," Markoe provides some laugh-out-loud moments and a few "ahas" of stinging insight into the nature of men, dogs, Westside trophy wives and Angeleno culture in general. It might not redefine modern literature as we know it, but it's an amusing time-eater, a whimsical escape during this downtime between Christmas and waiting for the world to begin again in 2009. It's an ideal place to bury your nose if, say, you're stuck visiting relatives and all your brother-in-law can talk about are first downs and incomplete passes and your sister-in-law wants to go to the mall (again) and the X-Box has paralyzed your nephew's ability to form words.

Just, you know, a for-instance. A completely random, hypothetical example.

Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation."

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