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Book Review: The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

Random House, 2012

Right in time for the holiday gift-giving season, Random House has brought out a big red Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, the almost-perfect gift for that discriminating half-and-change of the Western populace that has dogs in their life, or knows somebody who does. There are inevitabilities in a collection like this, but a good many of those inevitabilities are quite enjoyable, so even long-time New Yorker fans will find that wonderful mixture of familiar and fascinating that characterizes the magazine as well. The New Yorker has an association with dogs going back almost a century, and although readers will find most of that century only scantily represented here in terms of prose (fully half the pieces date from the last 12 years), the all-important visuals are winningly representative, with works from signature New Yorker artists such as Peter Arno, Jules Feiffer, George Booth, Peter de Seve, Edward Sorel, and the great Helen E. Hokinson (you’ll find her in the Picture Credits under “Helene Hokinson” … sigh) with her society matrons and their displeased Pekineses. That hideously overrated New Yorker fixture, James Thurber, is also all over this book like crabweed (that’s his daub on the cover), and readers will have to put up with a new fixture as well: New Yorker star writer, popular lecturer, bestselling author, and logorrheic idiot Malcolm Gladwell, who not only has two pieces in this collection – “What the Dog Saw,” his worshipful 2006 profile of dangerous “dog whisperer” fraud Cesar Milan, and “Troublemakers,” his incredibly disorganized and misinformed 2006 piece on pit bulls – plus his Foreward, which swings from inanity to inanity like a gibbon in a tree and concludes with the sage observation: “Whoof, whoof, whoof, whoof, whoof.”

The volume also includes, for no apparent reason, copy-edited proof sheets of some of the articles and poems – explicitly human-centered pages that would have been better spent giving us more stuff about, you know, dogs. And the whole thing opens with a full-page picture of a tapestry by Mischa Richter which is neither explained nor warranted, since unless the original was intemperately piddled upon, it has no connection to the subjects of the book. And in “Dog Days” the editors managed to find just about the only sophomoric thing Marjorie Garber ever wrote (“In this sense – so one could almost claim – it is the dog that makes us human,” etc.).

But even these drawbacks can’t dim the fun on hand in this delightful book! Not when we have such true gems as Adam Gopnik’s 2011 piece “Dog Story,” in which he recounts getting a dog and concludes with “How does anyone live without a dog? I can’t imagine.” Or Cathleen Schine’s heartbreaking 2004 essay “Dog Trouble” about Buster, the mentally damaged dog she adopted and tried to calm down sufficiently so he could live in the human world (as those of us who’ve had such a dog will know, and as Schine sadly learns, it can’t be done). There’s Susan Orlean’s great “Dog Star” (I know, I know – these titles!) profile of Rin Tin Tin, and from way, way back in 1941, there’s E. J. Kahn’s sharp, funny “Tallyho!” – about beagling on Long Island.

The smattering of short stories go a long way toward proving how hard it is to write good fiction that’s truly about dogs (all of the stories in this volume manage to be about alcoholic humans instead, and that’s about par for the field), but again, there are compensations, like “Beware of Dogs,” Burkhard Bilger’s gripping 2012 (sigh …) essay about patrol dogs and the disproportionate psychological effect they have on bad people:

In 2010, one station on the Lexington Avenue line was hit by twenty felonies in a matter of months. Once a canine unit was sent in, the number dropped to zero. “It’s like pulling up in an M1 Abrams battle tank,” [Lieutenant John] Pappas said.

And perhaps best of all the book’s features are the quick little anecdotes sprinkled throughout, most of them taken from old “Talk of the Town” columns that seek nothing more than to capture those memorable, inimitable dog-moments that have, one suspects, been happening every day for thousands of years:

An acquaintance of ours was hailing a tax at the corner of Park and Sixtieth one recent afternoon when a large English bulldog, promenading in the custody of a chauffeur, and a French poodle, held in check by a uniformed maid, suddenly went for each other, tugging at their leashes and raising an unearthly racket of barks and snarls. According to our man, an apartment-house doorman hurried up to them and called out, “Gentlemen, please!,” whereupon the two dogs fell silent and went off in opposite directions without so much as a backward glance.

And there are a couple of wonderful old covers by former magazine stalwart Mary Petty, one of which (it would have made an excellent cover for this book) shows a poor manor house maid being mobbed by hounds during a fox hunt, while the pampered house dog looks on (perhaps in envy?) from inside. Rewarding little rediscoveries like this one are rare in ‘best hits’ volumes, especially volumes so skewed for the present day, and they’re set off nicely alongside iconic new stuff, like George Steiner’s now-classic cartoon in which one dog assures another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” – a cartoon which almost certainly would have prompted Malcolm Gladwell to write “We are all dogs now,” if he’d gotten around to dashing off an Afterword too. Instead, we just get a shot of one of William Wegman’s Weimaraners dressed up as Eustace Tilley. But we already mentioned inevitabilities, right?