GIFT BOOKS : ‘I Was A Dog. I Did My Best’
I do not quite know why I am so very fond of dogs. Possibly because in my earliest dim memories, dogs were roughly my height, could look me in the eye, and therefore became the first friendly representatives of a race other than my own, a race always glad to see me as an equal. (I’m told in fact, that one of their ambassadors once actually bit me, and I do have a recollection of a large angry brown face in mine, and teeth, and my own blood, but felt, if anything, only an increased respect.)
The first dogs in my life were, and still are shadowy creatures. My parents would often mention Rudolf, the smooth-haired fox terrier who was my brilliant predecessor in their young lives (“Rudolf always finished his food”), and I vaguely remember Pepper, the ancient and foul-smelling pet of my Aunt Liz and her husband, Freddie. Childless, they would, on our infrequent visits, extract Pepper and his braided rug from some dark back room and bear him forth, along with the bowl of red and white candy bow ties, as a special treat, a mysterious visitation like the statue of Jesus who bled from his hands, while staring straight into the apartments over the plumbing shop across from the church where he stood. It later turned out that Freddie wasn’t childless after all. On his death, to his widow’s surprise, he had left his entire inheritance to a secret son he had stashed away in darkest Indiana, and though this may have been a surprise to Liz, coming from a man who used to buy gallon jars of olives, soak off the labels and then give them away as gifts at Christmas from his “olive farm in California,” it shouldn’t have been.
After Pepper, the next real dogs I remember were nameless--an Irish setter and a scottie who were the pets of our next door neighbor, Dr. Hall, and who, as I hunched beneath the scratchy bushes that together with a chainlink fence divided our two yards, I could coax close enough to the fence to let me touch their moist and friendly noses. Not surprisingly, these two breeds, the scottie and Irish setter, forever afterwards became my paradigms for what constitutes the limits of dog beauty, large and small, respectively. Years later for example, unaware of my having been imprinted in this way, I bought the first great love of my life a scottie, which she, with her usual prescience, called Cassandra. From the first, the dog wanted nothing to do with me, and shortly afterwards her mistress followed suit. My second love, who I wound up marrying, by this same mysterious logic I bought an Irish setter, a dog I still had when seven years later, the marriage fell apart.
My own first dog was a small, non-descript black mongrel which my drunken Uncle Louie lured into his car on the way to my birthday party because he hadn’t bought a present. Louie, as it turned out, had a gift for theft. Years later, after he had joined AA, dried out, and had risen to a responsible position with a large defense contractor, his job being to sell off obsolete or worn equipment, his lifestyle suddenly began to blossom with new cars, expensive clothes, a farm, private schools for his kids, and a string of losing racehorses. The answer, of course was simple. Buoyed by his success in selling off the old equipment, Uncle Louie had gone right on to the new, shunting it to a secret partner, though fortunately by the time he was arrested he had lined the walls of his garage with enough bundles of twenty dollar bills to keep him minimally together for the sad years that remained of his life.
I named this first dog Sally, in honor of my cousin Billy’s brand-new bride. Billy was about twenty years older than me, and his new wife had dark hair and dark gypsy eyes, mirrored, I thought, by my new dog’s. Best of all, he had met his wife as she worked behind the counter of a bakery, one of the two types of girls in later life I’ve had a tendency to fall instantly in love with, the other type, in yet another imprinting, being bank tellers. Billy was, through all his life, a pioneer of sorts to me. He was the first actual person I had ever met who owned a foreign car, an MG covertible that he assured me made “all other cars a joke.” He was the first to own a portable radio (“I wouldn’t be without it”), produced the first divorce (“It was impossible to live together”), and although I did not see him for many years before his death, I have no doubt he owned the first car phone in his neighborhood. Billy began life as the prosperous son of my artistic Uncle Bill, and drifted from a furniture designer (“It can’t miss”) to a technical illustrator (“It’s great; they pay me to sit around and draw pictures all day”) to a security guard at at Texas J.C. Penny store, where, at about the age of forty-five he had an aneurysm at a backyard barbecue (“He howled like a dog,” his father said) and was buried in the uniform of a captain of the regatta down at the nearby man-made lake.
Sally followed me to school each morning for a couple weeks, long enough to convince me that I was indispensable to her life, and then disappeared as swiftly as she had come. I mourned, and shortly afterwards received a pedigreed boxer pup called grandly by my father, “Slugger of Black Forest,” but called by me Tracy, after the comic book character, Dick Tracy. I remember fantasizing how, with Tracy for protection, I would be able to walk down the streets of Cleveland through gangs of ruffians and bullies, fearing no man or child, the powerful animal ready to spring to my defense if anyone so much as raised a finger.
Alas for me, Tracy was a powerful dog, but one with a will so stubborn it was impossible to get him to walk anywhere for more than twenty feet, at which point, having pulled against his slip collar the whole time, he would collapse onto the sidewalk in a fit of slavering unconsciousness. When at last he woke again, panting, he would pull me another twenty feet and then repeat the whole process. Needless to say, travel through enemy territory in this way was slow, and I worried what would happen to me in those moments he was out of commission. His one endearing trait was that he was a wizard at catching birds and rats, of which we had an apparently inexhaustible supply. Tracy would hide around the corner of the sandbox, wait for some unsuspecting victim to hop or waddle into range, and then serve him up as a love offering to my disgusted mother, who promptly shoveled whatever it was into the weekly trash.
Finally, the last dog of my youth turned out to be an Airedale--a compromise from the strangely-named and oddly-colored Kerry Blue terrier that had been my original choice from the library book on dogs I had brought home. After some discussion, my parents determined that the closest Kerry Blue was five hundred miles away, and had nothing in the offing, pupwise, for at least six months. Considering everything, Airedales were available, roughly the same size, and had been the paradigmatical dog of my father’s own youth, having been the pets of the blind prizefighter who represented his side of the family’s version of success.
“Let’s just go take a look,” he told me, shrewdly. “We don’t need to take one home.”
I acquiesced as well to my father’s suggested name, “Rif,” after some thirties musical that had, he assured me, a number entitled “The Song of the Rif.” I suppose I could look it up but my guess, now that I think of it, it that it was The Desert Song , by Sigmund Romberg, whose words, in another number, “One alone, to be my own,” my father was constantly going around the house intoning, and, come to think of it, that was why I wanted a dog in the first place.
What was it Rilke, a man who claimed to love dogs so much he couldn’t stand the trauma of owning one, said? Something about their eyes silently entreating us to have the answers to their pain, the answers, of course we can’t provide. And of course, it is just those answers which are the texts of his great work, the Elegies. It’s what they are about: pain, and death, and understanding--all those great poems, in effect, written as answers to dogs.
As for me, though that is part of what I feel about a dog, it isn’t everything. For me there is a steadying in their gaze that lets me keep the pulse of what the real world is like, the one that existed before we ever entered it. And though yes, it’s undoubtedly true that other animals, elephants and cats and squirrels and rats look out on that world too, there is something in those eyes that repels my own, like a magnet pushed away; they’re too much a part of that world to allow me to share it with them.
I sleep with a dog in my bed, and if I had more than one I’d sleep with all of them, as in the scene from the movie of “Tom Jones” where Squire Western collapses drunk onto a pile of bulldogs. Why not, I say, if you’ve got them? And when, in the middle of the night I lean back into that utterly-at-rest mound of snoring animal that’s lying next to me I can exhale just a bit more slowly myself because I know I am not alone here in this world, no person is, we all share the same trust in the universe that we can sleep, can shut our eyes and dream believing that we will wake in the morning having not been harmed by the night.
And as for that famous idea of Rilke’s “Eighth Duino Elegy”: that looking out at the world the animal does not see its death standing between it and the world, I’m not sure. Rilke says its destruction is behind it, but to me at least it seems as possible that instead it’s always there, and not destruction to them but a window, as for those ancient Greeks, Achilles and Antigone and Ajax, not to be avoided but to be gazed at, the preservation of a destiny.
The eyes, then, yes, they remain so always-clear, possess that yearning single-mindedness of gaze that is incapable of duplicity (at least when at rest, because I have seen dogs steal), a gaze when present that is possibly the best definition of innocence I can think of: to be single-minded, to only want one thing at one time, with nothing to do with goodness or purity, but only the lack of artifice. I think about this and try to guess what characters in literature would possess dog’s eyes, and there are vary few. Cordelia (from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”) I think, Mishkin (from Dostoyevski’s “The Idiot”)of course, and probably Gerasim, the servant in “The Death of Ivan Ilytch,” but after them, who else? In American literature, with its cast of tough guys and wise guys, I can find practically no one except Jim in “Huck Finn,” with all the racism that implies, and possibly Gatsby. In drama I remember that human dog, Clov, in “Endgame,” and then of course Chekhov’s stories, where the list seems endless.
Not every dog though, just some. A few years ago, in addition to the Irish setter I had mentioned earlier, I acquired, as a part of a new romance, a squinty, fussy, obese heap of a Samoyed named Manda, whose single transcendental trait was an appetite so enormous she would steal and eat whole boxes of fried fishfood, and once digested the entire front half of a sawdust-stuffed iguana before she went off to chew on an embroidered foam pillow. Manda, for whatever her virtues (implacability and a certain stationary quality) had not that gaze, ever, but it was her existence which, inadvertantly, ushered Bill into my life, having been dragged forward attached to a rope the size of a hawser by a neighbor child who was convinced (“I bring you dog.”) he was returning the alas-never-lost Manda.
Bill had the look, in spades, and one of the reasons I called him “Bill” was that the first time I looked into his dark and trusting eyes I realized his entire soul was no larger than one syllable, one as simple as the sound of a cup struck with a spoon, and all of it directed toward a dot on the horizon the size of a pea.
Bill was an awful dog in many ways. He was terrified of noise and solitude and water and of cars. Worse, he was strong enough to tunnel through a couch if left alone, and, if I was present, in his terror was perfectly convinced that despite all evidence to the contrary, if he crawled close enough to a person he could be that person, and in this way be saved. He died at last when, during a visit to my new mother-in-law, a simple woman who hated me on sight, only relenting ten years later when the onset of Alzheimer’s convinced her I was her friend, we left Bill in the kennel for a week. On returning he was thin, and thirsty all the time. The vet said the stress of being alone had activated his diabetes, and within a month he was dead, put to sleep as he stared straight at me, waiting for me to drive him home again.
And yes, like Rilke, I love dogs because they do trust us to figure out their problems and their pain, whereas I am incapable of even scratching the surface of my own. My favorite memory of my current dog (a setter--English, not Irish, just to show that like my parents, I too am capable of surprise in my advancing years) is of one day when he was six-months old and disappeared while out on a walk in the hills around our house. I found him thirty minutes later, apparently having chased a rabbit into a cactus patch, covered from the top of his head to his tail with broad, flat spines. Embroidered as he was with inch-long spikes, he simply refused to move and waited for me to come and find him, which I finally had. To remove the spines with a bandanna wrapped around my hand took another half an hour, and when I was finished he just got up, wagged once, and went looking for another bunny.
I have the same dog now. I had chosen an English setter for the breed’s elegance and grace, but this one grew to a goofy giant of an animal with enough lip and jowl to sew into a beach blanket. Still, he has that look, and stares at me now, patiently waiting for me to open a door to let him out so he can run out into the back yard to bark at imaginary thugs and robbers and thus feel as if he’s accomplished something for the day. Which after all, may be the final reason I am so fond of dogs. Unlike us, they can act and not know what it is to measure themselves against every other dog who has ever barked into the vacant air or to doubt the importance of the act itself. For them, at the end, they can simply say, “I was a dog. I did my best. Now it is finished.”
Here then is a list, admittedly personal, of books about dogs, and also therefore, intentionally or not, about humans.
MY DOG TULIP by J.R. Ackerley. A touching and wonderful memoir (especially the first half) by an eminent British literary critic utterly besotted with a female German shepherd. HEART OF A DOG by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Soviet new man turns out to be a mongrel with the testes of a petty criminal. Humans come off dismally in this 1925 version of Frankenstein crossed with Engels. MAN INTO WOLF by Robert Eisler. Well, OK, not exactly dogs , but who can resist the subtitle, “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy”? A 30-page essay written in 1948, it comes with 239 pages of footnotes, plus an appendix. BANDIT by Vicki Hearne. A passionate, epistemological narrative of how a dog trainer rescued a so-called “dangerous” American Bulldog from destruction. It’s a meditation on interspecies communication and miscommunication, as well as a true story. THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London. What person could ever be as noble, strong, trustworthy, and right as Buck? None, obviously, and we’re not even jealous in this classic of Rousseauism. A MAN AND HIS DOG by Thomas Mann. This memory of a German short-hair pointer by one of the masters of 20th century fiction isn’t so much about the dog (Bashan) or the man, but the world the two of them shared, of mice and hares and woods, the sort of a place one can see only when he has a dog to show it to him. DOG MAN STORIES by Mitch Sisskind. A recent collection about fighting dogs and their breeders with tongue so firmly in cheek it turns bathos into the literary form of the future. SIRIUS by Olaf Stapledon. An early (and possibly slightly kinky) science fiction work about a super-intelligent sheep dog who is in love with a young girl. My favorite part comes when, after Sirius is sent to a farm to herd sheep, the farmer looks with suspicion at the teeth marks in a pencil. Is someone writing postcards...? THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Among the many pleasures of this much-praised book is Thomas’s disapproval of those who see dogs as merely extensions of human vanity and control. Instead of training and obedience, she offers as an alternative a world of “trust and mutual obligation.” THE RIGHT DOG FOR YOU by Daniel Tortora. A breed by breed analysis of the traits of various types of dogs. It’s told with charm, and the excitement of seeing one’s own favorite dog’s ability (“learning rate: slow) charted, along with characteristics such as emotional stability (“high”) is as much fun as reading one’s own horoscope. FLUSH by Virginia Woolf. The biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel told elegantly and modestly by a great writer. Would that you and I merited the grace of syntax Flush receives, and correctly: “She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.”