Monday, August 14, 2006

A Good Dog by Jon Katz

Here's my review of "A Good Dog, the story of Orson, who changed my life" by Jon Katz. This was an ARC sent to me by Random House.
A damaged dog meets a damaged man. They bond, they heal one another, change one another, contract to never give up on the other, and, surprise, they never do.The relationship between these two creatures of different species is an amazing testament to the empathy of humans for canines, and dogs for the walking wounded among us.For those not familiar with Katz's work, and not obsessed with dogs, the first 50 pages of the book might seem slow going, as the reader wends his or her way into the world of Katz and Devon (who will be renamed Orson) a dog that seemed to me to be so insane he was unsalvagable. Yet Katz seemingly has no end of patience and money to lavish on this sheepdog that won't herd sheep, but will herd Katz through a midlife crisis. As a native Iowan, I grew up spending time on my grandparents farms, and learned early that animals are, in general, not the smart, empathetic and creative creatures that authors have anthropomorphized them into for decades in childrens storybooks. Most animals are dumb creatures whose purpose is to feed and clothe us. They do little beyond eat, poop and reproduce. That is not to say my family didn't value animals or pets, we did, certainly, but we didn't become obsessive about them or ascribe human emotions and actions to them. My grandparents were unfailingly kind to their animals, and my grandfather once horse-whipped a man who was beating an animal nearly to death. He despised cruelty to critters, and had a whole barn full of happy cats and dogs who would follow him to the ends of the earth.Though Katz seems obsessive and off-kilter in the first part of the book, he recovers his sanity and moral compass in the second half, and by the end of the book, the reader finds himself/herself weeping with compassion for Katz and Orson, and their heartfelt journey that came to an unavoidable end. My mother had to put down her beloved cat last year, after Paddington, 18, became too weak to eat or jump or move. Another friend, a pen pal from the East Coast, just this past weekend had to put down her German Shepard, who could no longer walk. Euthanizing an animal is harrowing, and I laud Katz for dealing with his grief in such a spiritual and poetic manner, and with such gentle compassion for his friend Orson.The authors honesty and vulnerability make this book a rarity, I think, among male authors. It takes courage to bare your heart to readers, and to display a relationship that was so personal, so intense, and so meaningful. Even for those who don't currently have a pet, like myself, this book is a good read for the insight and understanding of the human/animal bond that it provides. The prose is what is now called "long form" journalism, made popular by authors like Susan Orleans, so most readers will have no trouble with it. Yet for all its workmanlike prose, Katz still manages to slip in a lyrical, poetic description here, or a lovely narration there.My only two problems with the book were its redundancy, which one can blame on the lack of great editors at publishing houses (gone are the days of Harlold Ross and Malcom Cowley) but which adds a sour note to an otherwise lovely song. We read, at the beginning of several chapters, a repeat summation of what has happened in past chapters with Orson, and this isn't necessary at all. The other problem I had was that, on page 44, Katz expresses his love of Devon/Orsons horrible tendancy to try and bite or maim service dogs. This is just reprehensible on the part of the dog and the human, for admiring a dogs desire to wound a hard-working seeing-eye dog just because they exist. That is cruel and stupid, and not worthy of someone of Katz's seemingly gentle nature. Other than that, I'd recommend this book to all those who have ever had a beloved pet or lived on a farm with many such pets.

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