Beware My Fangs – Five Fictional Dogs
Bookseller Paul Doran examines dogs in fiction (for fun, not fleas).
Almost as soon as people started sketching themselves they started sketching dogs. We see them in cave paintings; running alongside hunters, even sometimes on leads. Their images were used to decorate Bronze Age
tombs, as if to suggest that the best accompaniment in the afterlife is the same as in this one. They can be found daubed onto rock, carved into stone and etched on bronze.
It’s not surprising then that we also see them appear in the earliest literature. Homer mentions the faithful Argos in The Odyssey. At least 600 years before that they feature in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Man’s best friend is also his oldest, so it’s no wonder that dogs have continued to scurry their way through our imaginations and into so many of our
Dropping a dog into a narrative can do anything from help convey an emotional depth for another character, to simply put a big fawning grin on a reader’s face. It’s a common literary device, and one of which readers and writers seldom seem to tire (what dog-lover is ever too tired to see a dog?).
The books I’m interested in, though, aren’t the ones that simply show us a dog then get on with the story. I want to read books in which the dog is the story, because that is the strange thing about this particular animal: they can feature as a main character, or even the narrator of a tale, in a way that no other animal could ever really get away with (well, maybe a cat, but that’s a different type of story altogether). If I was to tell you that I was writing a story – a story for adults – and the protagonist was a giraffe, or a panda, or a marmoset, you would probably smile and look desperately for someone else to talk to. But a dog? It’s a great idea. There are some brilliant stories about dogs, by great writers like Jack London or Anton Chekhov or Mikhail Bulgakov, and people love them.
I have noticed that there is something about using a dog in
literature that allows an author to confront things in a different way. Sometimes it isn’t enough for an author to use fictional people to explore the human heart or mind. Sometimes they need to step out of the human condition altogether and see things through the eyes of a close canine friend.
A few quick minutes after I decided to gather a pack of my favourite literary canines I found myself with more dogs than I could throw a stick for, so I’ve decided to keep this list contemporary and scrappy.
One Eye – Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
One Eye is a “vicious little bugger” with a “maggot nose”, one day away from being put down when he rescued from the kennels by Ray. As you might guess, he has only one eye. Although Ray, a lonely man, “too old for starting over, too young for giving up,” technically adopts the nervy and disfigured mongrel in Sara Baume’s novel, neither one of the pair ever really seem to be in charge of the other. They share the same meals and inhabit the same closeted world of elected solitude. As a reader you get the sense of sniffing around both characters and their little world rather than actually being guided through it, and, although it is Ray that tells the story, he is telling it to One Eye, as if they are together mulling over the course of events that fill up this novel’s four seasons.
It is easy to share their sense of comfort, and feel something of the mutual reliance that develops between one man and his dog as they fall into each other’s habits through the first quarter of this story. And when One Eye’s more vicious nature finally throws things into disarray, it seems almost sensible that the two refuse to face the consequences and instead take to the open road. The human world holds little appeal to either of them, as does the world of other dogs, so they choose to make their own.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is Sara Baume’s debut novel and is one of the best pieces of fiction I have read all year. Following terrific success upon its release by Tramp Press in Ireland, it is being issued in paperback by Heinemann for the UK market and has been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. One Eye, I was delighted to learn is based on one of Baume’s own dogs, Wink, who is apparently even more badly behaved than his fictional alter ego.
Dorothy - Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
When we first meet Dorothy, a small dachshund getting on in years, she is collapsed on her owners’ apartment floor, unable to move and out of reach of her food bowl. As Ruth and Alex - her aging owners - carry her in a taxi through a gridlocked Manhattan, using a wooden chopping board for support, the story’s narrative begins to shift perspective. One moment we see things from Ruth’s eyes, the next from Alex’s. Soon, as the confusion sets in, and the anxiety of being separated from her loved-ones takes hold, we start hearing things in Dorothy’s voice. Her fears are familiar: she knows she is sick but doesn’t know what is happening to her. Her sense of determination is just as relatable, while also being decidedly more doggish, driven by both the hope of seeing her owners again as well as the smell of cooked sausage.
Jill Ciment’s Heroic Measures is a story that shouldn’t work at all but actually manages to impress on more levels than I can count. It is about a sick dog, yes, but it also concerns an aging couple trying to sell their apartment, an artist struggling with his own past, and a suspected failed terror attack that leads to a manhunt and media panic. The result is a story that effortlessly conjures the emotional and physical challenges of aging while also casting a harsh light on the moral compromises that accompany a climate of fear.
Willy G. Christmas knows he is dying from the start. His life on the street and general despair has eventually caught up with him, and he knows his time is near. The last thing he determines to do is to make sure his beloved dog finds a new home. This much we are told by Mr Bones. He is Willy’s dog and the narrator of Paul Auster’s novella. While Heroic Measures takes us in and out of the mind of Dorothy, Timbuktu delivers us the whole human world through the eyes of a dog.
Mr Bones has Willy to thank for a lifetime of companionship, but also his vivid grasp of the English language. Willy “scarcely stopped talking from the instant he opened his eyes in the morning until he passed out drunk at night.” We get the impression the dog’s humour, his sense of irony, his fantasies of an afterlife in ‘Timbuktu’ all come from his one-sided conversations with Willy G. Christmas.
As he attempts to make a new life with a succession of potential owners, his longing to return to his old friend never goes away. Nothing is quite right, nothing is the same. He doesn’t seem to fit into the world anymore. When reading this I couldn’t help but see parallels with the life and work of the poet John Berryman, and his sometime alter-ego: his own "Mr Bones". Berryman was haunted through his life by the death of his father and sought refuge in alcohol. Auster’s and Berryman’s Mr Bones both searched for something they could never claim back, and both followed similar tragic paths.
Timoleon Vieta – Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
“Timoleon Vieta was the finest breed of dog. He was a mongrel.” He was also the much-loved pet of the failed composer Carthusians Cockroft. A dog with oversized ears and eyes “as pretty as a girl’s”. As Cockroft’s loneliness for human contact gets the better of him and he opens his house, and naïve affections, to ‘the Bosnian’, Timoleon Vieta begins to lose his once proud place in the household and is eventually abandoned to the streets of Rome.
Dan Rhodes’s short novel follows his journey back to his former master, taking in little snippets of other lives along the way. Anyone familiar with Dan Rhodes might expect an odd approach to storytelling, and this is certainly that. However, it is also brilliant. Little vignettes of different narratives string together to make up Timoleon Vieta’s tale, and, while the general premise might sound similar to Auster’s story, this book is decidedly like no other.
Granta listed Dan Rhodes as one of the 20 Best Young British novelists in 2003 and he has since gone on to establish a firm, cult following. It isn’t clear if Timoleon Vieta was based on a real dog, but his bizarre name was inspired by a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (T-V) which the author owned as a child. Apparently the subject division on the spine read ‘Timoleon-Vieta’. A reputable namesake if I’ve ever heard one.
Cujo – Cujo by Stephen King
While I imagine a good scratch behind the ear and steady supply of dog biscuits could win over any of the dogs mentioned above – and pretty much any dog I’ve ever met – I don’t think the standard tricks would work with Cujo. At least, not after he wanders into a cave and gets himself bitten by a rabid bat.
Cujo is a St Bernard who belongs to the Camber family and, until he becomes sick, provides a good-natured counterbalance to his owner Joe, who abuses his wife Charity and their son Brett. While Charity and Brett try to make their escape from their unhappy lives, their dog seems to tap into a darkness of his own, one that is beyond his control completely, and he begins to savage and kill their neighbours. While some of his victims do meet grisly ends, the worst horror is directed towards another young family, the Trentons, themselves unhappy in their own way even before they find themselves the hostages of the murderous hound.
Unlike most of King’s stories, Cujo features little in the way of supernatural horror. It stands, however, as one of the author’s most explicit confrontations with his own alcoholism, and the effect that his new-found success was having on his family. In fact, he claims to have almost no memory of writing the novel. He felt himself becoming overwhelmed by his addiction and somehow managed to turn that into one of his most famous characters. "He had always tried to be a good dog. He had been struck by something… free will was not a factor."
This might sound like a far cry from the murderous corridors of the Overlook Hotel, or the terrifying clowning around we see in It, but Cujo is the kind of horror that seems so real, and so personal, that it cannot fail to chill.