Nearly everyone has a dog story. The dog is such a versatile character. Companion to the secret exploit of childhood. Feverish enactor of the mechanics of propagation. Witness to the family's ebb and flow. Mirror of human foible. Mortal friend. Ghost of memory.
Nearly everyone has a dog story, even the First Lady.
Snootier Americans may be dumbfounded that that silly "Millie's Book" has somehow struck a chord of bestsellerdom. In the land of dog calendars and puppy posters and "I
My (basset hound)" bumper stickers -- and obviously beyond -- Barbara Bush's $17.95 fancy has become a publishing phenomenon. The grimly suspicious have noted that it is a political one as well, a Machiavellian bit of family-values distraction from what ails the republic. There's a cult of personality afoot here, lurking in the person, or the dog, of Mildred Kerr Bush.
These murmurs somehow miss the real truth about "Millie's Book," which is the truth revealed in any of the stories we tell about "our" dogs -- and as we'll see, three just-published litters of new fictional dog tales (and one of "Doggerel") bear this out. In truth dogs reveal us, as dozens of outstanding human writers have been showing us all along. Millie no less than Steinbeck's Charley reveals her family in ways that cannot have escaped at least the subliminal wavelengths of most readers.
Parse the messages here. Scant pages into this concoction, which we are to understand is Millie's "dictation" to Barbara Bush, the springer spaniel recalls her first moments in the lap of the then vice president's wife. This is 1987, and C. Fred Bush, the family's beloved old spaniel, has passed on; Millie has big shoes to fill.
The first thing she hears from her mistress is this oddly candid bit of welcome: "You are so sweet, but you are so ugly. You have a pig's nose, you are bowlegged, and your eyes are yellow," Barbara Bush whispers. Millie has this reaction: "I knew immediately that I was going to have to try harder. She also told me that she really loved me. I believed her."
Who can doubt that Millie's are in fact the carefully disguised sentiments of George Bush? Think about it: Millie arrived in the Bush household at the outset of his presidential effort in 1988, when his stature suffered by comparison with Reagan's, when his chances were belittled, and his image needed redressing.
The book is full of such revelation, as future biographers will doubtless appreciate. It is a celebration of life in the White House. The "dog," if Millie will permit the quote marks, is proud of bounding around the grounds at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., of the famous people "she" meets, of raising a family of "pups" in a historic mansion, of snoozing under "the Prez's" desk, and so on. Who can wonder that this is George Bush himself, unchained from his well-known modesty to say what frankly thrills him -- a boy on a firetruck.
The Reagans wore their marital bliss on their sleeve, like a Rodeo Drive gown; the Bushes do it like Yankee Episcopalians, pretending not to. They express themselves obliquely, self-deprecatingly, cornily, in a book of pictures of dogs, for Pete's sake. "Millie" doesn't fool us.
Franz Kafka, that old cutup, put it unfussily in his unfinished "Investigations of a Dog": "All knowledge, the totality of all questions and answers, is contained in the dog."
Heavy baggage for the old pooch, but being a dog, he will loyally, waggily bear it -- and does, in four books of canine writing appearing this season. Millie's hot sales breath (more than 300,000 copies) may obscure the more reticent and intriguing aromas of these collections of stories and poems, but definitely shouldn't.
A Perfect Therapist Nearly everyone has a dog story: "The time Rex disappeared for weeks, then showed up one afternoon on the back porch, licking his paw ... how they had to put Darling to sleep; how Fifi went blind, then deaf, then one day just didn't wake up; how Bosco could jump through a hoop; how Kelly swam underwater; how Jimbo begged, how Millie spoke... ."
Not Millie Bush, of course, some other Millie, and lots of other dogs, that novelist David Leavitt was thinking of when he wrote "Chips Is Here."
Leavitt's short story is one in an affecting new collection by contemporary American writers of dog stories -- not stories about dogs, cautions the editor, Michael J. Rosen -- entitled "The Company of Dogs" (Doubleday). The company of these dog-story writers is distinguished indeed. Besides Leavitt, it includes Thomas McGuane, Wright Morris, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason and Maxine Kumin -- plus a "suite" of Charles Barsotti cartoons and a portfolio of William Wegman photographs.
Why this canine compulsion? "A dog can be a perfect therapist," writes Rosen, "the one who can elicit, from even the most reluctant, a monologue that goes unchallenged and unmocked; how the dog can afford us the irrepressible chance for tenderness and physical contact; how the dog can, somehow, 'humanize' the most alien or impersonal situation; how the dog can prompt occasions when adults allow themselves abandon, unselfconsciousness, unqualified play.
"W.H. Auden expressed this aptly: 'In moments of joy/ all of us wished we possessed / a tail we could wag.' "
The works in this collection, the editor says, "divulge, collectively, that we all have private voices for our animals, vocabularies, shticks, quirky privileges." Rosen, a writer who is literary director of the James Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, and edited a book of Thurber's recently published prose, is something of a Fidosopher, as his eloquent foreword and afterword attest.
In the stories he compiled, "I sensed that the dog was not only textural (realistic), but mythical, metaphorical, symbolic, critical, auguring. The dog seemed variously elevated to the status of child, parent, self -- other, transitional object, witness, conscience, moral, god, Nature -- something other than pet or employee."
Easy, Bowser, don't be scared.
Rosen's rich collection is strikingly launched by Michael Martone. His story "Seeing Eye" is set magically in a world approaching a dog's own -- a town whose entire structure and habit is devoted to raising seeing-eye dogs: "Too many cats. Dummy fire hydrants. Revolving doors in the butcher shop. The park has been landscaped in levels. Stairs lead by fountains and reflecting pools. ... There is an escalator leading down to a subway station with turnstiles but no trains. They take the elevator back to the surface, where there are flower carts, news kiosks, street singers, three-card monte games, people selling watches spread out on towels, and other volunteers who pretend to be drunk and passed out on benches. Everywhere there are trees. Lots of trees."
The Company of Dog Books Evidently in the book business great minds think alike. Just as Doubleday is bringing out "The Company of Dogs" ($19.95), Atlantic Monthly Press is publishing "The Literary Dog" ($19.95), another superb collection of contemporary stories, edited by Jeanne Schinto. Both books, incidentally, are visual and tactile treats, "The Company of Dogs" small and squarish like a missal, "The Literary Dog" wide and hefty like an album.
Among the stories Schinto, a fiction writer in Massachusetts, has drawn together here, six are in Rosen's collection -- could it be there aren't enough to go around? -- along with work, most of it (like Rosen's) previously published, from John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Doris Lessing, Alice Adams, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Pinckney Benedict, Raymond Carver and John Edgar Wideman, to name just the better-known contributors.
"Dog lovers, beware!" warns Schinto in her introduction. "If you are looking to this volume for sentimental sap about 'our four-footed friends,' you'd do better to look elsewhere." Rosen too has a long list of what to look elsewhere for: "The dogs are not guiding a hunter or a physically impaired individual, trotting around the ring of a circus tent or a best-of-breed competition, accompanying a fashion model or an airport narcotics agent, submitting to a veterinary student or a dog groomer, chasing criminals or racetrack rabbits, protecting merchandise or sleeping children, winning an illegal fight or the incredulous heart of a parent whose child the dog has rescued from searing flames or sweeping currents."
No Lassie, in other words. No Rin-Tin-Tin.
What these stories in the two collections mostly are is sad, or at least poignant, even if told with the steely detachment favored by some contemporary writers.
The sentimental sap Schinto abjures is doggedly unavoidable, at least in our hearts. A dog, true to form, tests our ability to inure ourselves to love, invites us to suffer tragedy openly. So many of these stories, in fact, are about the deaths of particular dogs -- and not infrequently death comes at the regretful, weeping hand of its best friend, who must make "the impossible choice between life and love," in Lee K. Abbott's phrase ("Where is Garland Steeples Now?" in "The Company of Dogs").
All of this sadness must come, as all valuable things, from real life. The attachments behind Susan Kenney's "The Death of the Dog and Other Rescues" or Barbara J. Dimmick's "Shooting Tookey" or Jim Shepard's "Reach for the Sky," all from "The Company of Dogs," or Pinckney Benedict's "Dog," from "The Literary Dog," are too palpable to be wholly invented. The death of a dog, and the birth of pups, may be our first exposures to loss and miracle.
Dogs are soulful creatures, but plenty of tails wag in these pages, human tails included -- in reading, for instance, Peter Cameron's "The Secret Dog" or Tobias Wolff's "Passengers," from Schinto's collection, or Leavitt's "Chips Is Here," from Rosen's. Amy Hempel, in her story for Rosen (she has another in the Schinto volume), makes some sobering points in merry rhyme, like "Meat's no treat for those you eat," as well as other Timexlike truths about dogs: "Takes a bruising and keeps on snoozing," and "Takes an adoring and keeps on snoring."
In the story "Dog Life," by the new American poet laureate, Mark Strand, Glover Barlett confesses to his wife Tracy that in his previous life he was a dog. He is a convincing rememberer:
"We bounded about in the yellow twilight, excited by the clicking of branches and the parade of odors making each circuit of air an occasion for reverie. Burning leaves, chestnuts roasting, pies baking, the last exhalations of earth before freezing, drove us practically mad.
"But the autumn nights were even better: the blue luster of stones under the moon, the spectral bushes, the gleaming grass. Our eyes shone with a new depth. We barked, bayed, and babbled, trying again and again to find the right note, a note that would reach back thousands of years into our origins. It was a note that if properly sustained would be the distilled wail of our species and would carry within it the triumph of our collective destiny. With our tails poised in the stunned atmosphere, we sang for our lost ancestors, our wild selves. Darling, there was something about those nights that I miss."
To which his wife replies: "Are you telling me that something is wrong with our marriage?"
Dog Tags Slightly more dogeared in its contents is another seasonal collection, "Dog Tales" (Viking Studio Books, $12.95). It consists of "classic" stories about "smart" dogs by such as Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Saki, James Thurber and O. Henry. In "Memoir of a Yellow Dog" O. Henry makes this provocative statement: "Humans were denied the speech of animals. The only common ground of communication upon which dogs and men can get together is in fiction," which could serve as a coda to all of these books.
These older fictions in "Dog Tales" are surely worth preserving and reading, but -- improbable as it sounds -- authors seem to have been doing a great deal more thinking about the Meaning of Dogs in recent years, to judge by the complexity of the stories in the contemporary collections. These "Dog Tales," in any case, are being wagged by the main attraction here, the (either cute or noble) portraits of dogs by photographer Myron Beck.
The fourth new volume just waiting to be adopted by a loving master is "Doggerel: Great Poets on Remarkable Dogs" (Chronicle Books, $12.95), a slender pup of a book with a selection of light, nonsense and just plain bad verse by Ogden Nash, Carl Sandburg, E.B. White, Erica Jong, Don Marquis, Raymond Carver, Dylan Thomas (at age 11), Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, among others. Worth the price of the book alone, however, are the Martha Paulos linocuts that illustrate it, and this article.
Levels of Comfort Finally there is the matter of debts, ours to dogs.
Michael Rosen and his contributors have donated their talents and forgone all profits from sales of "The Company of Dogs" to benefit agencies that offer care for animals at risk or in distress. This publishing scheme is patterned on last winter's collection of short fiction to benefit soup kitchens and other homeless services, "Louder Than Words," edited by William Shore, and will be repeated in another Rosen book project, "No Place Like Home," featuring the work of authors and illustrators of children's books, and intended both to celebrate the home and help those who don't have one.
Rosen as editor is careful, in "The Company of Dogs," to say that "I have not stipulated that the included authors adhere to an agreed-upon set of moral judgments and ethical choices ... the authors of these stories might choose to wear leather or fur, eat meat, hunt, or use products tested on animals." His own "level of comfort" with these dilemmas of humane behavior, he says, is still "adjusting" -- concernward, of course.
But in the afterword, Rosen makes a stronger claim on our consciences. Noting the plague of shopping-mall pet stores and the puppy mills that supply them, noting the stupefying number of cats and dogs we euthanize every year -- 10 million! -- and noting the experimental brutalities to which these animals are subjected, Rosen writes: "The prodigality, carelessness, and oblivion are excruciating; yet the most unbearable, unimaginable aspect of these crises is that they're solvable."
These stories, in addition to throwing a handful of loose change into the passed hat of animal protection, also have a deeper purpose. They are "not filled with indignations or political actions," Rosen writes, but they offer, "at least, an available and sad contrast between the lucky lives of our own animals, and those we hear or read about."
Millie's a lucky dog, and her Boswell can feel proud that sales of "Millie's Book" have generated so much to support the work of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Readers of stories of any kind can only applaud her work and priorities. But since Millie has become such a distinct symbol and leader in her own right, might there be the chance someday for another foundation, one devoted to Millie's less fortunate kith and kin?