Friday, September 01, 2006
Books! Breaking faith
When I read the advance notices for Jon Katz' new dog book, A Good Dog, one phrase struck me: a "lifetime dog."
Katz' book is about Orson, an unruly border collie who came into his life and, the book's summaries maintained, changed him and renewed him. Katz uses the term "lifetime dog" to describe that one dog who touches you more than any other - often for reasons that make no sense at all, often despite everything. I automatically started nodding at this concept.
Dog people - that odd, quirky subset of dog-owners who've had many dogs, who almost always have more than one dog at the same time - will tell you this is a true concept. Every once in a while, a dog will come along who touches you deeper and more truly than the others, through no fault of their own.
You love all your dogs, of course. But when one of those special dogs comes along, something deeper inside you is involved, something involuntary and far more coercive than love. It isn't anything you decide, and you can't ever predict it, but if you're lucky, you'll experience it. And Katz is right: it changes you.
Some of you will know that I myself have had a "lifetime dog." Some of you may have met him. Katz is a bit melodramatic about the moment he bonds with Orson: he talks about a 'covenant.'
"I will keep faith with you. I will stay committed to you. We will not quit on each other. We will not give up on each other."
A little hammy, but again, it had me nodding - we make that vow with all our dogs, but in virtually all cases, the promises only go one way. I promise to look after you, to stay with you, to shield you from harm. And in return, well, you'll be you - sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes funny.
With this special kind of dog, though, the promise goes both ways. They look out for you, indulge in your weaknesses. They, unlike all their brethren, are not only your friends but your ALLIES.
When my 'lifetime dog' was with me, no heartbreak was unsalved, no joy was unechoed, and no trial was unsupported. I was never lonely, and I was never privately lost.
So naturally I was interested in any book that explored this particular slice of dog-life. Katz is a fairly good writer on dogs, so I was happy to get an advance copy of the book.
Imagine my surprise when I read the thing and realized that all the hype-work was entirely wrong. And that Katz was foisting a big fat fraud on the dog-book-buying public, probably unintentionally.
Orson, it turns out, is not a 'lifetime dog.' It's abundantly clear at the book's end that Katz is currently living with his 'lifetime dog,' and it's not Orson.
Orson is a very different kind of dog: the problem dog.
The two are never the same. Problem dogs don't have the clarity or strength to do the work of 'lifetime' dogs. But problem dogs also touch you in a unique way, and it's clear that's what Orson was.
He bites people. He bolts into the street in an attempt to herd cars. He never calms down, no matter how Katz yells at him.
Some of you will know that I myself recently had a problem dog. His name was Dooley, and he was not a good dog. He was haunted - nervous, high-strung, mostly too tense to be happy. Sometimes he was suspicious even of me, and sometimes he would bare his teeth at others.
I lived with it. I schooled myself in patience. I had to, because I'd already made all the promises Katz portrays himself making to Orson. To protect him. To help him. Not to quit on him.
Eventually, Dooley got sick. Even then, I stuck with him as long as he wanted. As long as he needed. He was never anything but a source of anxiety and annoyance to my friends and loved ones (to say nothing of my other dogs), but I stuck by him, because that's what you do with your dogs. Problem dogs moreso than most, because they need it so much more.
I stuck by Dooley, and he died, and I won't lie and say his death didn't have as many elements of relief as grief to it.
Which is why, if Jon Katz walked into this room right now, I'd punch him in the face.
Because two-thirds of the way through A Good Dog, exasperated by Orson's misbehavings, he packs him into the car, drives him to the vet, and has him executed.
Orson springs into the car that brings him to his death. He looks up with deep curiosity into Katz' face as the drugs are administered, no doubt wondering why his human friend was so obviously upset. And then the light goes out in him, and Katz stands up, wipes his eyes, and goes home to write his book about his 'lifetime' dog.
Some of you may know how far I go back with dogs. They aren't a trivial subject with me.
And I say Joh Katz is a traitor. A weakling. A hypocrite. And worst of all, a plain and simple coward.
Orson was being difficult. He was making Katz' life difficult. His dogs were always regular and obedient, good and steady farm dogs like the ones I grew up with, happy little boys and girls who'd no sooner displease their humans than fly unaided through the air. Orson was different - he needed a huge amount of help, inconvenient, time-consuming, and probably expensive help (although the expense would have been considerably lessened if Katz had ever bothered with any kind of systematic attempt to TEACH Orson anything at all)
Almost every dog-person has experienced this at least once. The ones who are no fun. The ones you always need to THINK about, whenever you're going to a friend's house (or a friend is coming to yours), whenever you take them to a dog-park or onto a subway. The ones you need to WORRY about, because they do mad, crazed things.
They can't help it, problem dogs. Dooley couldn't help it. Orson couldn't help it. The only difference is, I didn't have Dooley executed the first (or even the tenth) time he BARKED at me when I tried to leash him up for his nighttime potty break.
Katz can cloak his cowardice all he likes in shamanism and mystical mumbo-jumbo. 'I feel he's out there somewhere' ... well, he sure as Hell isn't HERE - he's gone from the only existence he'll ever have because Katz betrayed the covenant he made. He quit when the going got rough.
Orson was a handful, but Katz was the master: it was his job to take whatever chance sent his way. My friends Andre and his beautiful wife just lost their good old girl, certainly no Miss Manners, a borderline problem dog herself, and my friend Beepy has a problem dog right now as we speak, a dog who's reduced her to tears on any number of occasions.
And I had Dooley.
None of us KILLED our problem child, much less killed them and then maundered on about their MEANING.
Orson is dead today because Katz wasn't up to the task of dealing with him as he was. I've been there, in exactly that position: having a problem dog and wanting more than anything else to FIX them.
You don't fix them by killing them. That's easy and conveniently sentimental, but it's awful. I read the book and came away with one overwhelming (albeit retroactive) urge: give ME Orson! You're not providing him with anything more than confusion: your instructions are inconsistent, your considerations are haphazard. Let me take over. Let me take him off your hands.
A Good Dog is obviously being marketed to the same readers who bought Marley & Me in such huge numbers. But the two books aren't anything alike: Marley is also a problem dog (from the two books' descriptions, a whole lot more of a problem dog than Orson was), but his owners keep faith with him nonetheless, and he lives a long and happy life because they didn't just quit when things got tough.
Here's hoping Katz' craven rationalizings don't make it onto the bestseller list.