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No Pooch for Old Men

Saturday, March 15, 2008

In truth, these days, nothing makes me feel less like a man than feeding, playing with, or cleaning up after, one of our three stray cats. Because no cat ever treats you like a buddy or playmate, only as a source of food and shelter from the elements. I never met a cat who would condescend to treat me as an equal.

That's, I guess. why I prefer dogs, who don"t know a life form to which they claim superiority. Dogs are the true (small -d) democrats.

I think Jack London's The Call of the Wild is paws-down the greatest dog story I've ever read. It's free of Walt Disney's kind of mawkishness, that would make his version of Beowulf or of Atilla the Hun a four-hanky tear-jerker. It dramatizes London's view of the conflict between the sweet calm of civilization, and nature "red in tooth and claw."

There used to be -- maybe there still is -- a whole genre of "boys' books" on dogs. In the back few pages of most late-19th-century novels for adolescents were a list and brief description of such dog stories. I've seen them, and, in fact, my father, who as a teenage boy owned a collie named Laddie, once gave me a novel named "Bob, Son of Battle," which I loved, partly because it didn't hasten my diabetes. No, it was realistic, with no sugar-coating, and it still appears on my bookshelves. Each teenage boy probably had his own favorite.

These days, the Disneyesque dog stories make me gag because the dogs don't behave even remotely the way the dogs I remember behaved. But, I've recently been steered (by wife Ginny, who else?) toward a dog who could be the spittin' image of Peter Mooney, the neer-do-well scourge of my fourth grade class. The novel, titled "Marley & Me" (2005, William Morrow paperback) is narrated by its author, the young and newly married Florida newspaper man John Grogan. The subtitle, "Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog," is cute but surely libelous and exaggerated. But not by much.

The very first paragraph reads, "We were young. We were in love. We were rollicking in those sublime early days of marriage when life seems about as good as life can get." That's followed by the one-sentence second paragraph: "We could not leave well enough alone."

Beautiful! I'd tentatively give the "Expression" category on the "Cottey Grading Sheet" an A, just on the basis of the guy's first 34 words.

The young couple respond to an ad: "Lab puppies, yellow, AKC purebred. All shots. Parents on premises." This, in response to their research, which they admit has been pretty much limited to Gary Larson's "The Far Side." Before they take the young Marley (named for the Jamaican singer) back to their still childless home, Grogan reports meeting the father, a "frothing, mud-caked banshee charging out of the woods." and hoping their new charge takes after his well-behaved mother, instead.

Not! Marley the labrador retriever turns out to be . . . a lab! That it to say, a great big, very heavy, hulking, exuberant, unpredictable four-legged, vastly slobbering, unstoppable engine bent on pulling down whole walls of sheetrock, tearing up whole fields of bedclothes, and other astounding related feats. Written in retrospect, of course, Marley and Me records Marley's expensive marauding, and the young couple's anguish, but it also records -- in Grogan's masterful comic voice -- the high hopes, frustrations, and sheer joy felt by two young people very much in love. The novel telescopes the growth of the Grogan family, the birth of their own children, and the whole life cycle of Marley.

Grogan doesn't romanticize Marley's growing old. "His breath, always a bit on the fishy side, had taken on the bouquet of a sun-baked Dumpster." In addition, he had acquired a taste for chicken manure" and "gobbled the stuff up like it was caviar." When the end came, Grogan took a good, long look back at Marley's life, and how it had affected his own and his children's. "A person can learn a few things from an old dog.," he writes. "As the months slipped by and his infirmities mounted, Marley taught us mostly about life's uncompromising finiteness." The above doesn't sound like anything in a Disney film, either. And more's the pity.

If you can get hold of a copy of this book, get it, sit down, and read it immediately. It's that good.