Book review: ‘Good Dog. Stay’
In Good Dog. Stay, (Random House. $14.95), Anna Quindlen opens her story with a scene familiar to all dog owners: That of a dog — no matter how big, or how brave while tracking down a tossed Frisbee, tennis ball or stick — sitting in a veterinarian’s waiting room, trembling.
Quindlen’s black Labrador retriever “with the ridiculous AKC name Bristol’s Beauregard Buchanan” would “shake and shiver and shed his coat, so that the other patients and their people were enveloped in a haze of fine black fur not unlike a cloud of gnats.”
Like many dogs, Beau also possessed the uncanny ability to detect when a ride in the car meant going to the doggie park, say, or going to the vet, “the place where his prostate was once examined.”
When Beau’s intuition kicked in, he would go limp. “Beau’s white-coat syndrome took the form of systemic paralysis, so that he turned himself into a solid 75-pound block at the end of the leash, like one of those wooden pull toys for children, but bigger and more obdurate.”
Beau, with his “catcher’s mitt of a mouth,” has all the makings of a good literary character, a good story, a rollicking good read.
The first two pages of Quindlen’s scant, 82-page book all but promise another fun tale of a dog’s life, a la the bestselling “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” by John Grogan.
But that’s not how this story plays out. Instead of an entertaining yarn recounting Beau’s hilarious adventures, Quindlen has written what can only be called a eulogy. At that, it’s beautiful.
Reflecting on Beau’s life and death, Quindlen ponders the role that dogs play in our lives. “But the life of a dog is not much of a mystery, really,” she writes.
“With few exceptions, he will be who he has always been. His routine will be unvarying and his pleasures will be predictable — a pond, a squirrel, a bone, a nap in the sun. It sounds so boring, and yet it is one of the things that makes dogs so important to people. In a world that seems so uncertain, in lives that seem to ricochet from challenge to upheaval and back again, a dog can be counted on in a way that’s true of little else.”
Quindlen is an unusual writer — one equally successful at journalism, writing a long-standing column for The New York Times and Newsweek, as well as fiction, penning five bestselling novels, including “One True Thing” and “Black and Blue.”
She has also found success in sharing her wisdom about life. In “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” for example, she suggests her reader avoid the temptations of becoming a workaholic. In “Being Perfect,” she suggests avoiding the pull of perfectionism.
In “Good Dog. Stay,” Quindlen shares what she has learned from her dog Beau: “To roll with the punches (if not in carrion), to take things as they come, to measure myself not in terms of the past or the future but of the present, to raise my nose in the air from time to time and, at least metaphorically, holler, ‘I smell bacon!’”
Yet, it seems, what Quindlen, 55, has really learned from Beau is how to approach death.
“Each morning, I used to check to see if the old guy was actually breathing, and each day I tried to take his measure — was he hurting? Was he happy? Was the trade-off between being infirm and being alive worth it? And when the time comes to ask myself some of those same questions, at least I will have had experience calibrating the answer.”