Dog! A Novella
by Mike Robbins
published by Third Rail Books 2015, paperback, 128 pages
If I told you that a book made me cry, would that stop you from reading it? If so, let’s just pretend I didn’t say that. What? Cry? Me? A book so moving that it reduced me to blubber and caused me to open up the Cupboard of Treats and start handing out biscuits to my own dog, speaking of blubber if not of reduction? I never said any such thing! In fact, this entire paragraph is just the product of your imagination. It never happened at all.
Dog! is an absolutely perfect novella; perfect in character, profound in meaning, masterful in plotting and shred in pace. It is everything that smart writing is meant to be about in that this fictional story of a rescue dog expresses a quite literally life-changing theme yet does so without once losing sight of the fact that a writer’s first duty is to entertain the reader.
A slight confession: I had not heard of Mike Robbins until his publicist sent me a well-written email asking if I’d take a peeky-weeky at her client’s book. To be honest, she had me at the title. One of the very first full-length books I remember reading as a child was Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and in the intervening decades I’ve rather hoped that someone somewhere might write another book about a dog that would nuzzle at my heart in the same way as Mowat’s old spaniel Mutt. Old Yeller didn’t do it for me as the dog was a supporting character, and even the massive bestseller The Incredible Journey (whose author Sheila ‘Bunny’ Burnford used to summer a few miles away from me) had to have a cat along for the ride. Good books both of them, but neither one made me want to hug the covers tight to my chest when the last lines were read. That had to wait until now.
Robbins, I see from the descriptions at the back of Dog! and of his other books is a British journalist who has spent nearly thirty years abroad in Asia, North Africa and South America. The great benefit that comes with a career as a working journalist is the refinement of the clean, sharp style that editors demand in order to meet the limitations of page space. Hemingway of course was the Grand Master of this and will forever be pointed to as the artist that journos should aspire towards. The author of Dog! does not need to take a back seat to Hemingway, and that there’s some mighty fine praise.
The plot can be limned out in a very short sentence. A rescue dog, at least part Border Collie, is adopted by a middle-aged man and both discover truths about existence. Those truths are about Buddhist concepts of reincarnation as well as the indestructibility of souls. I fear I might be losing some of you with that idea, so let me quickly explain with a quote from Dog!:
“Thus,” he intoned, “while form changes place and circumstance, it itself cannot possibly be annihilated, since spiritual substance is no less real than material. So only outer forms change and are destroyed, since they are not things, but are ‘of things’; they are not substance, but accidents and circumstances of substance.”
“What?” said Richard.
“You should know,” said Bazza. “You’re the materialist. That’s Bruno in De la causa, principio et uno. Written in London. In 1584.”
This happens to fit my own philosophical leanings perfectly. It seems to me that if everything in the known universe emerged from the Big Bang, then there was just as much stuff then as there is now or as there will be either in a billion years or a week from this Tuesday. Stuff can be transformed, but it cannot be truly destroyed. Finally, if sentience is an outcome of certain combinations of stuff – human thoughts, or animal thoughts – then thought itself and therefore memory retain an indestructibility. You don’t have to take my word for it. Scant days before this review was written, Pope Francis announced that animal souls can indeed go to Heaven. That announcement came from the same Vatican that had poor old Giordano Bruno, quoted above, burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600. So in other words, he eventually won his case on appeal.
The passage I quoted is the only ‘heavy’ – albeit necessary – part of the whole novella. By the time this discussion rolls around, you will already be charmed by the Dog’s remembrances of his previous life, specifically events that took place around the time of the Blitz in World War Two. I won’t explain more, as if there was ever a book I didn’t want to ruin with too much peeking behind the curtain, this is the one.
The absolute best of it is what seems the simplest element. I believed in the dog. Dog (who doesn’t get a specific name until two-thirds of the way through the novella) acts as a dog acts. And believe you me, I know the actions and the logic of a Border Collie much, much better than I do that of humans. They are independently dependent, lovingly in charge and vigilantly relaxed … just like the one warming my toes as I type this.
In sum, there are some books that one admires, others are respected, a very few are treasured. Dog! is a book to be loved.
Be seeing you.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)
Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Mike in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.