Jim Gorant's tale of the rescue of Michael Vick's dogs, reviewed by Mark Caro
THE LOST DOGS
Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption
By Jim Gorant. Gotham. 287 pp. $26
The Michael Vick dogfighting case raised many vexing questions about the collision of human and animal natures: What causes someone to find entertainment value in dogs fighting and maiming one another? What would drive such a person to kill the losers in ways that verge on torture? Is animal cruelty a product of an already troubled life, or is mistreating animals a steppingstone to violence and other criminal behavior? Why are so many people more disturbed by an NFL quarterback's involvement in dogfighting than by other players' implication in people-on-people crimes such as sexual assault, murder and assorted shootings and beatings?
Jim Gorant's "The Lost Dogs" is not the place to seek discussion of these questions. As the repetition of "dogs" in the title and subtitle indicates, this Sports Illustrated senior editor's primary interest lies in the animals themselves. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of people in Gorant's book -- a scorecard would have come in handy -- but almost all of these folks share a desire to save the majority of the 51 pit bulls found chained to car axles or tucked away in dark kennels on the then-Atlanta Falcons star's Virginia property.
That's no small task. Even top officials at the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recommended that these presumably aggressive dogs be destroyed. But most of the pit bulls proved to be gentle, if often traumatized, animals that apparently suffered more from second-hand trauma -- being aware of the brutality taking place -- than from actual combat. "Only a handful were seasoned fighters," Gorant writes, "and many were just young goofy pooches that had led a life of deprivation."
The first section, "Rescue," spends most of its almost 100 pages chronicling the efforts of animal-friendly law enforcers to ensure that Vick didn't walk in this potentially precedent-setting case. Gorant implies that Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter dragged his feet because of reluctance to prosecute a local African American celebrity, thus setting the stage for a turf battle that resulted in the U.S. attorney's office taking over the investigation. The legal wrangling isn't exactly John Grisham-level intrigue; the case is less a matter of interpreting complex clues than collecting evidence (i.e., digging up dead dogs and interviewing witnesses) to prove what investigators (and readers) already know.
With little dramatic tension to work with here, Gorant fattens up the narrative with dogs' point-of-view observations, superfluous details (is a deputy sheriff sipping Miller Lite from a mug really worth mentioning twice?) and the occasional snippet of bad-movie dialogue. ("Mike, it's Jim Knorr. We have a situation.") Similar padding is apparent in the book's subsequent two sections, "Reclamation" and "Redemption," which focus on the dogs' journeys from kennels to sanctuaries and foster-care centers.
A dynamic repeats itself: Shy or petrified or quirky dog ultimately warms up to caretaker's entreaties to become a worthy companion, perhaps even passing the Canine Good Citizen exam. Gorant pumps up the stakes by stressing the case's importance as a potential attitude-changer; it could "disprove the public's basic beliefs about the breed," "help change people's minds about pit bulls," "tell the other side of the pit bull story," "show the world what this breed is all about," etc. Gorant ends one chapter: "The truth, in the end, is that each dog, like each person, is an individual. If the Vick dogs proved nothing else to the world, this would be a significant advance." Wild guess: People who don't think dogs are individuals probably aren't reading this book.
In his Dec. 29, 2008, Sports Illustrated article, which tells the basic story with more compression and pop, Gorant asked, "Was it worth the time and effort to save these 47 [remaining] dogs when millions languish in shelters?" Yet he has no one in his book pushing this provocative point or providing any forceful counterpoint to the massive allocation of resources (funded by Vick) on behalf of these dogs. "The Lost Dogs" lacks not only a true antagonist (aside from Poindexter, briefly) but antagonism altogether; there's no clash of ideas to fuel drama and to trigger thought. That's not to say that Gorant's dogs and rescue workers aren't inspirational -- they are -- or that the writer doesn't paint the occasional funny-cute picture (one dog "looked like a scrappy street kid in a cow suit"), but his narrow approach leaves "The Lost Dogs" feeling more like pit bull advocacy than dynamic storytelling. By the end of the 21-page "Where Are They Now?" epilogue covering each of the dogs, it's the reader who's in danger of being put to sleep.
Mark Caro is the author of "The Foie Gras Wars" and a Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter.