James Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services.
The relationship between humans and their pets has been a staple of literature almost since, say, the advent of movable type. So one would think that a story about a lost dog would have to be pretty good to advance the genre along. Pauls Toutonghi’s “Dog Gone” accomplishes the feat admirably. Dog lovers of the world can unite behind this book.
Like a good novel, “Dog Gone” is full of twists that keep the reader engaged until the very end. But Toutonghi, whose two previous books were novels, has a real-life story on his hands, and the result is not so much about a lost dog as it is a family’s love for one another even amid trying circumstances.
The family is John and Virginia Marshall of McLean, Va., and their two kids: Fielding, a young adult newly graduated from the University of Virginia, and Peyton, an older teen who has gone off to finish her education at Reed College in Oregon.
Fielding, or Fields as he is called, is in a post-graduate rut. A romance has fizzled, he doesn’t have a job, and he does a lot of goofing off. At some point he goes to the local SPCA shelter and picks up a puppy, a golden retriever mix, and as boys and young men are wont to do, falls head over heels with the mutt he names Gonker.
One day after he has moved back to Northern Virginia and found gainful employment, Fields and a friend decide to go for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Gonker heads into the brush. The big doofus of a dog is nowhere to be found. Fields is devastated. Gonker has Addison’s disease; left untreated, he will die.
Fields has his own medical issues. But other than his sister, he has told no one about them. And so the focus is on the urgency of finding Gonker. The hero here is Virginia Marshall, known as Ginny. She’s the daughter of an alcoholic mother who suffered unbelievable emotional and physical abuse as a child and is determined to keep her family together through whatever challenges it faces.
As father and son go off to search the trail, Ginny — in those pre-Facebook days of the late 1990s — organizes a social network to hunt for the dog. She contacts everyone she can think of in the area, including newspapers. One, the News Virginian of Waynesboro, wrote a story. It got picked up by the Associated Press. The Daily Progress of Charlottesville followed. The circle of people looking for Gonker grew daily.
Toutonghi’s narrative is well-written and fast-paced, although his use of direct quotations about long-ago events is often questionable. Yet he had amazing access to the participants, married as he is to Peyton Marshall.
Don’t be surprised if, at the finish of “Dog Gone,” you find yourself wanting to rush to an animal rescue shelter. As they say, if you want to have a friend in Washington, get a dog.
By Pauls Toutonghi
Knopf. 252 pp. $25