All My Dogs: A Life
David R. Godine, 2011
Anton Chekhov had a theory that if there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in a book’s first chapter, by the second or third chapter it will be fired. And I have a corollary theory that if a book has a dog as one of the main characters, whether it’s a novel or nonfiction, by the end of the book that dog will die.
Part of this is just math: Dogs don’t live all that long. And part of it is novelistic license. If you want to illustrate a certain kind of life lesson, the ironies of unconditional love, one of the many varieties of grief, or just add a heavy element of poignancy, you can’t do much better than the finite life of a dog. It’s what I refer to as the Bad Bargain, in which you’re allowed a glimpse of the best love there is, but you don’t get to keep it for very long at all. And lest that sound flippant, I can also tell you it’s been six years and 28 days since my last very good dog died, and I didn’t even have to look at a calendar to figure that out.
So you’d think that I’d be somewhat emotionally prepared for a book entitled All My Dogs: A Life. But no: I cried at my desk at work, in the staff lunchroom, on the subway (twice), and had the sense to finish it in the privacy of my own home. And if that sounds like the book is a downer, rest assured it’s not. This is a lovely little volume, gentle in tone and a bit artless, telling the story of a life through the dogs who attended it. Bill Henderson, the founder of Pushcart Press and its better-known progeny, the annual Pushcart Prize, hasn’t written his account as an instructional, or a confessional, or even a celebration. Rather, it’s a meditation on the grace notes both dogs and people bring to a life—a hybrid “mutt memoir,” as he calls it.
Trixie was an odd name in our devout family. It suggested bawdiness, perhaps a striptease dancer or a nightclub singer, associations that would have upset my parents. But perhaps they thought they owed it to the dog to keep her name. So Trixie it was for all of her laughing years.
The cast of canines ranges from Henderson’s childhood dog, the aforementioned Trixie, through his current two, Franny and Sedgwick—a border collie mix and a Portuguese water dog. Along the way he introduces us to Duke, rescued from his childhood best friend’s house after an unfortunate incontinence episode (“I … called out to Mom in the kitchen, ‘Can I bring a friend home for dinner?’ ‘Sure,’ She called back gladly”), the sweet and tragic duo of Ellen and Rocky, the exuberantly obnoxious beagle Opie, and Sophie, a yellow lab who bracketed the fraught, early days of marriage and fatherhood, “the keystone of our fragile family.” In and among the tales of good beasts winds the story of a childhood in the burgeoning suburbs, bachelor days, family life. Henderson’s work takes a back seat in the telling, but the few anecdotes about his fledgling days as a Greenwich Village publisher are charming nonetheless:
Pushcart Press occupied the space under my bachelor’s double bed. The bed filled most of the apartment and was supported by boxes of books. In good weeks, the bed sank closer to the floor as orders left, carried on my bag in umber one mailbags to the nearby Prince Street post office. In bed weeks, when unsold books were returned, the bed rose again, sometimes at an awkward angle.
He even gives a turn to his dogless years, including the time with his first wife, an ex-nun and Philosophy major. The reader definitely senses a sly connection, though, between her academic avocation and her dislike of dogs and children:
Wittgenstein didn’t like dogs either. He pooh-poohed any human-dog connection. “If dogs would talk we couldn’t understand them,” he opined. (The standard retort to that profundity is Wittgenstein can talk and we can’t understand him either.)
In his Prelude, Henderson lets us know that the book is a tribute to Lulu, his “life dog, the one closest to my heart.” But even without the explanation, that would be clear; every word he writes about Lulu—“Chewy” when they brought her home from the shelter—shines with affection and honor. I defy anyone, dog lover or not, to remain unmoved by his descriptions of their solitary time hiking the woods of Maine together, or their last days after sharing a cancer diagnosis that only he would survive:
The spirit of St. Francis was with Lulu and me in those final months—old dog, aging man, chasing up and down hills and beaches for the sheer waning exuberance of it all.
This small, kind book is steeped with an earnest sort of fondness all the way through—the back matter even points out that it’s set in Minion, which means “faithful companion.” The accompanying line drawings by Leslie Moore, appealing portraits of each dog recreated from photos and Henderson’s desriptions, add a nice touch. Lulu really does have the sweetest eyes. There’s nothing ironic about All My Dogs, or even particularly contemporary. But it’s a lovely tribute to friends who leave too soon, and it’s okay if you cry. It’s one of the things they’re around to teach us.