Book Review: Pound for Pound
A Story of One Woman’s Recovery
and the Shelter Dogs
Who Loved Her Back to Life
by Shannon Kopp
It’s no secret that dog-memoirs are prone to schmaltz for the same reason baby-memoirs are: the poor sap victims can’t give their own side of the story. They’re stuck being described in luminous prose as last-chance angels of joy and hope when all they really wanted was an extra fruit cup, or a visit to the loo. It can make for some very effective catharsis-reading (and some genuine sob stories – if you don’t tear up at the end of Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door, for instance, you have the innermost soul of a house cat), but even the most canine-friendly audience can start to feel a bit guilty of opportunism.
Shannon Kopp’s new book Pound for Pound (with its everything-but-the-index subtitle A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life) seems on the surface like a prime candidate for such doggie-shamming. Kopp details her troubled personal history with her alcoholic father and her own eating disorder, and readers wary of emotional manipulation will fear the worst when they early on encounter lines like, “My father drowned in a sea of vodka and denial. I stuck my fingers down my throat and reached all the way to my heart, trying to yank it out.”
It’s a canine trait that saves the book from its own worst inclinations, and it’s incredibly tempting to think Kopp learned that trait from the dogs in her story: complete, awkward sincerity. Pound for Pound wins over its readers in much the same way a dog would: by slobbering on them, and by honest-to-God meaning every single splatter.
Looking back on her morose, body-obsessed younger self, Kopp wishes she could somehow say to that girl Find joy – feel alive! And the simple truth at the heart of her book is that she didn’t find her own joy or come to feel alive without help. In fact she learned joy grudgingly and gradually from the one species on Earth that (certain dumpy, rancorous breeds notwithstanding) embodies joy.
Kopp takes a job at the San Diego Humane Society and is introduced to the heartbreaking world of the American animal shelter, where tens of thousands of dogs wait miserably in cement cages until it’s time for them to be executed. Volunteers and staff members fight impossible battles in these places every single day, straining over the cacophony of terrified barking and crying to reach out, to make connections that might hold for just a year or two, to save as many of these dogs as they can by finding them the homes all of them deserve. It’s at this shelter that Kopp makes her first real acquaintance with one of the sweetest, gentlest, and most loving breed of dog in the world, the pit bull, and her descriptions of their enormously affectionate ways earn each syllable of their slightly purple prose:
Sometimes when I felt overwhelmed I held on to their bulky bodies like an anchor, and I experienced a love that came unexpectedly, a love that bathed me in slobber and acceptance, a love that was rarely celebrated and often misunderstood. The pit bulls weren’t stingy or picky about their cuddle time. They never said, You get ten minutes of my affection and then I’m done loving you, because I’ve got other more important things to do. They never said, I can’t sit in your lap because of what you did last night, or an hour ago.
What they said was: Is there any possible way I can move this body of mine closer to you, to sniff your cheek, to know your scent, to see your eyes?
The book picks up an unbeatable narrative momentum when Kopp meets one particular pit bull, Sunny, and forms almost instantly that special extra connection that some dogs evoke even in seasoned dog-lovers. She slides into Sunny’s cage and focuses entirely on her despite the wretched chaos all around them both:
Here we were, I thought, dogs screaming all around us, metal clanking, shit stinking, animals on lists to die without knowing it yet, and Sunny’s eyes couldn’t have been brighter than the pulsing rays of sunlight beaming down on us. I felt that my presence had something to do with those eyes, and it made me feel like I mattered. Thoughts about what happened at the club or life in general those lovely, ever-frequent, subtle, negative thoughts, took a backseat to an intense connection in the moment with someone who wasn’t human.
Plot convolutions follow – Kopp relapses into her eating disorder, Sunny is scheduled for euthanasia – and here our author displays another worthy narrative quality in addition to her winning sincerity: she knows how to torque a plot. There’s a drive to the book’s final quarter that’ll have even Guinea Pig owners (those placid souls) reading eagerly just to find out what happens next, and the stakes couldn’t be higher: not anything so theoretical as self-help but rather the desperation not to find that one particular cage empty because the shelter’s killing machinery couldn’t be delayed long enough.
It almost goes without saying that anybody who’s ever worked in an animal shelter will love Pound for Pound. Likewise the book is a sure-fire gift for any dog-lover, especially those who’ve done the right thing and taken in a shelter dog. But the book has a wider appeal as well: it’s required reading for anybody who’s ever been lucky enough to be saved by somebody else.