Review: Two dog memoirs shed light on human nature

The cover of "Off the Leash" and author Matthew Gilbert.
(Mary Bachmann / Thomas Dunne Books)

Dog memoirs are a tricky literary tradition. Writers are naturally solitary people, so it’s no surprise they often form close bonds with such loyal, social animals and that, in turn, their pooches begin to inspire (or some might say dictate) their written work.

While the dog-oir may seem like a recent, treacly phenomenon inspired by bestsellers like “Marley & Me,” it’s been around far longer: Caroline Knapp’s “Pack of Two” hit the shelves in 1998, James Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” in 1962, J.R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip” in 1956. Virginia Woolf published “Flush,” a semi-fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, in 1933. A year earlier, in 1932, E.B. White managed to get the New Yorker to publish an obituary for his dog after an unfortunate accident at a floral shop.

But making an individual dog obsession interesting to others can be a challenge that overwhelms even the most accomplished among us. (See former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson’s “The Puppy Diaries” for an example of what not to do: its title is unfortunately accurate, with Abramson recounting her dog’s first year with the myopic self-interest of a first-time parent.)

Dog memoirs: In the July 20 Arts & Books section, a book review of the dog memoirs “Travels with Casey” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis and “Off the Leash” by Matthew Gilbert misidentified John Steinbeck as James Steinbeck and misspelled “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s last name as Milan. —

New books by two journalists take differing approaches to this task. Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ “Travels with Casey” is an intentionally intellectual, geographically expansive analysis of dog culture, while Matthew Gilbert’s “Off the Leash” barely strays from the city-dwelling author’s equivalent of his own backyard: the local dog park.


Contemporary Americans love their dogs as much as they love their own neuroses, so it’s likely that many readers will nod and sigh in recognition with the first line from “Travels with Casey”: “I don’t think my dog likes me very much.”

Denizet-Lewis takes Casey on a road trip across America, hoping for time to resolve their bond while examining one of the collective paradoxes of dog ownership in the United States: In the city or the country, rich or poor, we simultaneously love and are bewildered by our pets. The author, who has previously chronicled the subcultures of addiction and sexuality, likes to balance his journalistic observations with personal reflection. His book isn’t just about the dog; he also questions his relationships with his mom and his exes while searching for clues as to why we are sometimes more easily drawn to dogs (even the most aloof of them) than to our own species.

His encounters with fellow dog owners along the way include anonymous dog park patrons, literary figures such as Amy Hempel and Armistead Maupin, and even canine “experts” like controversial “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan, who babbles on a few pages too many.

The real insights, however, come from laypeople like McKenzie, a survivor of domestic violence he meets in Kansas City. When McKenzie finally sought shelter at the Rose Brooks Center, she brought her 140-pound Great Dane with her in violation of the shelter’s dog policy. Like many people with abusive partners, she wasn’t going to leave her dog behind, and his positive affect on the shelter population inspired them to build kennels and welcome more dogs.


While Denizet-Lewis is a master at effortlessly weaving bits of research into his narrative, at times this technique is at odds with the more traditional memoir at the heart of “Travels with Casey.” Denizet-Lewis seems to use his wealth of information to deflect from going too deep into the personal wounds that may have bonded him to his dog. Yet by the time they leave Chicago and head back home to New England the narrative begins to synthesize into a sort of epiphany. Most people, he realizes, “simply appreciated their dogs. … Their dogs weren’t the cause of their worries; they were a respite from them.”

Matthew Gilbert, a television critic from the Boston Globe, takes a more narrowly focused approach in “Off the Leash,” which limits the scope of his observations to a year at his local dog park.

An admitted curmudgeon just a few steps away from Cruella de Vil, Gilbert sees his life change when he falls in love with a dog person and then falls in love with dogs. “Dogs bring us into our own hearts,” he writes, “but they are also a bridge to other people. It’s a cliché, I totally know that. … And yet there it is: my truth and the truth of many dog owners I’ve gotten to know.”

Gilbert captures with great humor the world within the dog park. There is Charlotte, whose ineffective management of her dogs clears the park as soon as she arrives; Margo, who is unable to recognize any pop culture references from the past century; the nameless man whose apartment overlooks the park and who spends his days counting each individual bark to lodge a complaint. Beyond the individual quirks, Gilbert finds community and the ability to empathize among people who on the surface have little in common.


Seasons pass, relationships shift and grow, and inevitably there are losses. Gilbert, who had always felt scarred by the early death of his father, is finally able to recognize grief as a part of who we are.

Gilbert’s book and particularly his final pages reminded me of a something a grim New York editor once said. Asked to name the greatest flaw she saw in new writers, she replied, “Fear of sentimentality.” What she meant was that sentiment, in its original definition, was not a bad thing, but too many writers had drained emotion and feeling from their work in fear of the dreaded, newly derogatory term. Gilbert doesn’t shy away from feeling, in spite of his own protestations.

Dogs, he says “remind us that we also have naked desires underneath our defenses and our protective layers, that we, too, are creatures who live in packs and who need to play. There will be blood, and fights, and humping, and premature losses, but there will be moments of joy … that seem to come straight from our human DNA.”

Perhaps that is the greatest gift that dogs and those who chronicle them are able to give us. They let us know that, despite everything that may have happened before them, it’s still OK to love and to trust. And to feel.


Foster’s books include the memoir “The Dogs Who Found Me” and an illustrated history of the pit bull, “I’m a Good Dog.”

Travels with Casey
My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country

Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Simon & Schuster: 352 pp., $26

Off the Leash
A Year at the Dog Park


Matthew Gilbert
Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s: 240 pp., $24.99