Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates: Reading a Sarah Vowell book is like getting the coolest, smartest and funniest person in the world to take you on a tour of the kind of places you’d go to if you weren’t held down by a nagging wife, whiny kids, and demanding cats*. Sarah Vowell is like that commercial “where history comes alive.” In The Wordy Shipmates, as she does in all of her other books which you should read, too, she writes about the Puritans or Early Americans or whatever you want to call them (I think of them as non-Jews) with dishy intimacy and poignancy. Ms. Vowell is monstrously entertaining and there’s the added benefit that you walk away knowing some obscure historical facts that would be a hit at the cocktail parties you’d go to if not for the wife, and kids and cats.
(*this is not me as I have a husband, only one child and dogs, not cats)
Hyatt Bass, The Embers: Who wants to read a book about a dead kid? Not me! I have depressing-book-a-phobia, especially one where a child dies. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I picked up The Embers, because I never would have found out that that isn’t what the book is about at all. It’s the story of a family – complex, dysfunctional, totally normal characters, except they’re insanely engaging. Ms. Bass is the rare kind of storyteller whose lush, elegant prose keeps pace with her riveting page-turning plot. The one thing I had a hard time believing was that this was Ms. Bass’s first book.
The Books of Kate Christensen: At an introduction at a reading, Maud Newton said, “If you haven’t read Kate’s books, well you must read them all.” I always listen to Maud so I read The Great Man first. I gobbled it up and went on to The Epicure’s Lament, In The Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and Trouble. This was where I became convinced her talent was otherworldly. Who is this writer who inhabits every character so absolutely? Never for a minute do I doubt that each book is being told by an aging man, a twenty-something assistant, a young gay guy, or a middle-aged divorcee, respectively.
In 2009, I also loved (lerved, loaved, luffed): Fly-Over State by Emma Straub, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Dog Years by Mark Doty, The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg, Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner and Queen Takes King by Gigi Levangie Grazer.
I’ve just finished reading Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. I can’t believe how good this is, is the refrain that’s been echoing in my mind. Yates’s masterful prose, psychological insight, and immaculately rendered dramatic tension get all your pistons firing—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, sexual, political—as writer and reader at the same time, and in a way that makes analysis and critique of its many wonders (and horrors) difficult. Believe me, I just spent a day and a half trying.
So. Another time, then. (Or not, since quite a lot of ink has been spilled about it since the movie version came out last year, including Garth Hallberg’s piece here at The Millions). Instead, I’m going to write about dogs. And believe it or not, I’ve got a segue for this. Here is April Wheeler, pleading with her husband Frank, during the first of several spectacular marital showdowns that take our breath away in Revolutionary Road:
“All right, Frank. Could you just please stop talking now, before you drive me crazy?”
Then again, after one of Frank’s long-winded speeches, where he works to convince April that she needs to see a psychiatrist; that all their troubles are hers:
“Could we sort of stop talking about it now?”
And then later, part two of the argument featuring this particular tactic:
“I guess you’re right. I guess there isn’t much more to say, then, is there?”
Finally, toward the end of the novel, in the midst of what becomes the most horrific (and final) knock-down between the Wheelers:
“Oh, Frank, you really are a wonderful talker. If black could be made into white by talking, you’d be the man for the job.”
Talking talking talking. This is what Frank Wheeler does best, has always done best; the mark of his supposed “first-rate, original mind”:
“…that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk…there was nothing average about his performance in the beery, all-night talks that had begun to form around him…”
But it’s this talking, ceaseless talking, that works as a kind of loaded gun in Yates’s tale of contrasexual warfare. There is a brief, shining moment in their life together when talking brings Frank and April Wheeler together—indulgent talk of travel and new lives and authentic living; but for the most part in Revolutionary Road, talking destroys. With his insistence on talking as control— including talking inside his own head, rationalizing cowardly acts and flabbiness of character—Frank commits a kind of irrevocable violence against his own soul and April’s by making neat with words what is not at all neat, or manageable, or knowable. With talk, he wrenches and twists and throttles the life out of the human heart, because he doesn’t know what else to do with the messy frightening business of damage, grief, and longing.
[Animals] look at us across a void made of the distance between their lives and our immersion in language. ‘Not a single one of his myriad sensations,’ wrote Virginia Woolf of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, ‘ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.’ (from Mark Doty’s, Dog Years)
I’ve got dog on the brain, because my pup is turning 10 years old this year (yes, yes, that’s 70 in human years), and I’ve just purchased health insurance for him. And in case you’re wondering, the answer is no – the U.S. health insurance overhaul does not include pet health insurance. The three lumps that my pup has developed in the last year (all benign, not to worry) are not covered by the plan I just purchased for him; meaning, if any of them go rogue, it will be considered a “pre-existing condition.” Same with the Lyme Disease for which he tested positive three years ago (to date not manifesting any symptoms). So I guess I have to hope that new illnesses befall him—new lumps, new viruses, etc.—while the old ones remain innocuous.
On a windy, snowy winter day last year, I was walking my dog on a country road. Normally, he does fine off-leash and doesn’t stray out of sight. This time, I was listening to an audio book on my ipod and lost track of him. For 15 minutes, I shouted his name, but he didn’t come. I began climbing (sliding) down the steep embankments off the side of the road, trudging through ice-crusted snow at two-feet high, screaming his name into the bitter-cold wind, panicked. A friend who lives on a farm in Minnesota had recently told me that the harsh winter was killing off the deer, both because of food supply and because as they made their way through the icy snow, they’d suffer severe cuts across their limbs and would bleed to death. I remembered that there were a few ponds in the area, and I imagined him traipsing across one, then falling through the ice, limbs freezing before he could get his dog-paddle going. After 45 minutes of this, I was breathless and sobbing, I fell to my knees in a pile. I gathered myself, wiped the snot from my face, and walked slowly home to find him sitting on the porch, nose up, waiting. That was when I knew—for the first time I really knew—that my attachment to my dog was something I couldn’t—shouldn’t—talk about with just anyone.
For a memoir unit in a creative writing class recently, I distributed to the students the first chapter of Mark Doty’s Dog Years, his memoir of the death of his dog Beau and the 16 years they spent together. The students were not fans of the Doty excerpt (preferring a humorous essay by Sloane Crosley), finding his tone—in the first chapter at least—self-righteous. It’s true, I suppose, that he opens the book in a defensive posture:
One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them…
…no one should have to defend what he loves. If I decide to become one of those dotty old people who live alone with six beagles, who on earth is harmed by the extremity of my affections? There is little enough devotion in the world that we should be glad for it in whatever form it appears, and never mock it, or underestimate it depths.
A student said: “Clearly, Mark Doty is one of these people who likes dogs more than he likes people.” The student did not mean this in a neutral observation kind of way. I laughed it off, trying not to betray my feeling of being caught out.
The following writers contributed to Unleashed: Poems By Writers’ Dogs, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard:
Edward Albee, Jennifer Allen, Danny Anderson, Lynda Barry, Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Robert Benson, Roy Blount, Jr., Ron Carlson, Jill Ciment, Bernard Cooper, Stephen Dobyns, Mark Doty, Stephen Dunn, Anderson Ferrell, Amy Gerstler, Matthew Graham, Ron Hansen, Brooks Haxton, Cynthia Heimel, Amy Hempel, Noy Hollan, Andrew Hudgins, John Irving, Denis Johnson, R.S. Jones, Walter Kirn, Sheila Kohler, Maxine Kumin, Natalie Kusz, Anne Lamott, Gordon Lish, Ralph Lombreglia, Merrill Markoe, Pearson Marx, Erin McGraw, Heather McHugh, Arthur Miller, George Minot, Susan Minot, Honor Moore, Mary Morris, Alicia Muñoz, Elise Paschen, Padgett Powell, Wyatt Prunty, Lawrence Raab, Mark Richard, John Rybicki, Jeanne Schinto, Bob Shacochis, Jim Shepard, Karen Shepard, Lee Smith, Ben Sonnenberg, Kate Clark Spencer, Gerald Stern, Terese Svoboda, William Tester, Abigail Thomas, Lily Tuck, Sidney Wade, Kathryn Walker, William Wegman
Amy Hempel has been known to bring her dog with her to graduate lectures.
If you haven’t read Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” you really should.
A wonderful story by Stephanie Vaughn, “Dog Heaven,” begins like this—“Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again”—and features a heroic dog you’ll never forget.
It seems there may be some relationship between love for dogs and being a writer. Not that to be a writer one must love dogs (steady down, cat-lovers), or that dog-lovers make for better writers. Poet Susie DeFord, creator of the blog Dog Poet Laureate, puts it this way:
Animals are all about the little things, the insects buzzing and the scents of the earth and air; for writers these details that build a framework for our world and trigger emotional responses in our reader are our biggest asset.
It’s true — dogs and animals are keen observers, they listen and notice so well. We are drawn to their silent attentiveness instinctively, I think — creature to creature.
And, like a musician who is sensorially tortured by the off-pitch note, so a writer feels acutely, in mind and soul, the failures of human speech in everyday life (how I dread talking on the phone, which relies solely on the forced expressions of speech, absent other physical cues). The wordless companionship between dog and human offers the writer something like refuge from the necessary dishonesties — sometimes harmless, yes, but just as often injurious — of talk.
When I teach the writing of dialogue, I try to convey that the key in rendering speech compellingly is to make it sound real, when in fact it is condensed, stylized, and carefully shaped from the lumpiness of verbatim transcription. I encourage students to eavesdrop, and to distill the principles of how people really talk, the essence of verbal intercourse. What we’ve concluded in our discussions:
People generally do not say what they mean, or mean what they say
People tend not to listen very well; rather each person is more focused on what it is he wants to say
People speak in half-formed fragments more than complete sentences or fully-formed thoughts
There is almost always a power dynamic in any conversation, whether subtextual or overt
My God, why talk at all? And Yates’s Frank Wheeler – the violence of his talking, of which he is tragically unaware – drives the point home for me. Stop talking, April Wheeler pleads repeatedly. Frank’s “deformity of words” is more than she can bear as she desperately struggles to sort through her own distorted inner voices. On some (sadly misguided) level, Frank and April are trying to love; but talking, Yates seems to posit convincingly in Revolutionary Road, is not love; it may even be anathema to it. Tellingly, the last word of the novel belongs to Howard Givings–reticent husband of Helen Givings, the Wheelers’ real-estate agent and neighborhood busybody—who listens for as long as he can to his wife’s endless chattering, another version of Frank’s control-talk: “But from there on, Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.”
Maybe [dogs] remind us…of our own origins, when our bodies were not yet assumed into the world of speech. Then we could experience wordlessly, which must at once be a painful thing and a strange joy, a pure kind of engagement that adults never know again.
The intimacy—the purity—of silent togetherness is—I agree with Doty—a basic and original creaturely longing, and one that we find in our relationships with dogs. Somewhere between the painfully disappointing limits of verbalized human language and a dog’s humble, uncomplicated efforts at communication with its human—a wagging tail, a perked up ear, a whimper or a bark, a pushy wet nose, those insistent eyes—a writer finds rest from the assault of poorly-used words.
The skeptic of human-animal attachment wonders how much of this is arrested development. Are dog and human together in anything but body—that is, are we concocting an intimacy born of some grotesque misanthropy—when we luxuriate in the assurance of a dog curled up at our feet, sighing contentedly? To which I say, who knows; and isn’t the not knowing the heart of the intimacy anyway? Whatever it is, there’s no need to either wonder or worry, because the togetherness is as real as any other—mysterious, and beautifully wordless, a deep and welcome peace not unlike Howard Givings’s “thunderous sea of silence.”