I’m in love with a grieving misfit driving around with a donkey-shaped piñata in an old van held together by duct tape. Her name is Penny Rush. She’s the hapless heroine of Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel, and she’s something of a piñata herself. How long she’ll survive the beating that life’s been giving her is an open question in “The Dog of the North.”
We catch up with Penny mid-descent. Yes, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but this one is unhappy in every way. Penny’s mother and stepfather vanished in the Australian Outback five years ago, leaving her in “a weird limbo,” a fugue of unresolved mourning. Now, she’s finally abandoned her boring job and her philandering husband, Sherman, in Santa Cruz. The “cowardly” emails Penny wrote to sever ties “were the whimper rather than the bang at the end of my world,” she says. Sherman was “the tool with which my inner depths had been plumbed, exposing all my limitations and vulnerabilities.”
With what passes for optimism, she declares, “My future was up for grabs.” Her greatest goal is to “achieve a conventional lifestyle.”
It doesn’t look promising.
Both her grandparents — long divorced — need her immediately. Grandpa had a bad fall, and his shrewish second wife wants him carted off to a nursing home posthaste. But first, Penny must stop in Santa Barbara to deal with Dr. Pincer, her cantankerous, 82-year-old grandmother, the “family’s private madwoman.” A retired pediatrician, Pincer — as Penny calls her — has lost her mind, but not her authoritarian manner nor her distrust of everyone. When the nice folks from Meals on Wheels show up at the door, she runs them off with a bazooka.
There’s a reason Pincer might not want people coming to her house. “She’s been living here alone for over twenty years,” Penny notes. “The living room looked as if there’d been a carnival and nobody cleaned up.” The fridge is full of furry old foods or, possibly, medical experiments. It’s not reassuring to spot a vial labeled “Live Polio Vaccine” on the floor. Then the police find a human skeleton in the woodshed, and “The Dog of the North” takes on the scent of “A Rose for Emily.”
That’s a lot for a newly jobless, separated and impoverished young woman to take on.
Penny’s ally in this difficult situation is her grandmother’s kindly accountant, Burt. The details are vague, but it seems likely that Pincer is Burt’s only client. Pincer is convinced he wants to sleep with her. But so far as Penny can tell, Burt sleeps in his office, and not well. “It seemed as if his body were struggling for its very survival,” Penny observes with increasing concern. The only healthy-looking aspect of his appearance is his “mink-like” toupee, which he shares with his brother, switching off month by month.
Or at least that’s what Penny thinks he said. But sharing a toupee? “How could that be?” she wonders. “I hated it when I wasn’t sure what someone was saying, and always took it to be my fault, an auditory processing problem.”
It isn’t Penny’s fault or an auditory processing problem, though. It’s just the nature of this near-surreal world, in which the wacky and the wounded feel inseparable. Indeed, the great miracle of McKenzie’s writing, like Kevin Wilson’s, is how she manages to transform misery into gentle humor. After all, “The Dog of the North” isn’t social satire or cringe-comedy. McKenzie displays no interest in mocking her hapless characters. Instead, she swaddles their sorrows in zaniness.
A hum of erratic absurdity runs beneath these pages like a loose wire behind the walls, continually shorting out and making the lights flicker. The irresistible sound of “The Dog of the North” is Penny’s voice, composed of mingled strains of good cheer and naked lament. “I’ve always found it strange how quickly a person can lose control, how thin the veneer or civilized behavior really is,” she says. “I held a lot of childlike delusions about how matters worked in the world.” Losing those delusions, at 35, is an awkward and painful process.
But what drives the novel forward is its ever-increasing levels of precariousness. McKenzie’s plot develops like a unicyclist juggling chain saws. Can this end well? Soon, Penny is dashing back and forth to check up on loved ones in three different hospital rooms, fending off police in two states, trying to solve a cold case Down Under and ignoring an IRS demand for $200,000 while trying to deal with waves of remembered trauma.
Caught up in all those emergencies, will Penny be able to hear the quiet voice of someone who truly loves her and her quirkiness? “I had a trait that worked against me,” she confesses, “which was that if I ever received a compliment, a loud roar, like a great fire crackling on a ridge, would fill my ears and the compliment would thus be vaporized.” That doesn’t make her an easy woman to date, but she’s impossible not to love.
It’s all darkly hilarious, generating what Penny calls “the kind of laughter that can be triggered by the mordant and brutal.” Unfortunately for Penny, she’s trapped right between those two states. It’s enough to make her wonder, “What was I doing here?”
But anyone reading this novel will be happy to endure the bewilderment with her.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
The Dog of the North
By Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press. 319 pp. $28
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