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Wednesday, 12 September 2007 00:00

Life in the midst of change

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A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas. Harcourt, 2006. 192 pages

A blurb on the front cover of Abigail Thomas’ A Three Dog Life: A Memoir reads as follows:

“The best memoir I have ever read. This book is a punch to the heart. Read it.” — Stephen King

Though I normally don’t seek out books about dogs — yes, all you canine lovers, I realize completely that my lack of interest in man’s best friend puts me up there with Adolph Hitler (actually a bad example, as Hitler apparently loved his dog Blondi so much that the German General Staff had the impression that at times the dog and not the Fascist vegetarian was running the war) — I took King’s recommendation and opened the book.

A Three Dog Life has the virtue of being short, weighing in at under 40,000 words which, when you are busy and supposed to be on top of reviews and have instead gotten confused about the schedule and so are late getting your review to the editor, can be a gift from the literary gods. In addition to its brevity and its generally simple sentences (“Rich was a runner. He ran for the joy of it. He ran to clear his head.”), A Three Dog Life also offers a simple plot, allowing the hard-pressed reviewer to pass through the book, as General Patton once said, like crap through a goose. (Actually, I’d prefer being the goose, but it’s impolite to refer to works of literature as goose droppings. And being a critic, I am certainly used to being called worse names. Suffice it to say that the book was a quick and easy read.)

Here is the plot. Abigail and Rich meet. They marry. They live happily until Rich is hit in an auto accident (we never quite get all the details here). Rich enters a sort of nursing home. Abigail visits. Abigail also acquires dogs. Despite his damaged brain, Rich composes the wittiest dialogue in the book. For a time Abigail owns an apartment in New York and teaches at the New School. Later she moves out of the city, buys a home, and sees Rich more than once a week. She takes care of three dogs. She reflects on her fate. She single-handedly knits more shawls, hoodies, and scarves than a Chinese sweatshop. She smokes. She drinks a little. She ponders her existence. Sometimes she even wonders how Rich is doing. (She also, as I said, generally disdains complex sentences.)

Given the fate of Rich — he is, after all, brain-damaged and institutionalized — my remarks here will doubtless strike some readers as cruel. Before anyone begins to sharpen a knife, however, let me put out a question: How many of you have taken care of parents with terminal cancer? With Alzheimer’s Disease? How many of you have faced the death of a child or a spouse, a brother or a sister, and the devastation caused by that loss in your life? How many of you readers have raised a child with Down’s Syndrome, or some other crippling illness?

Let’s say that many of you have endured such calamities or you know someone who has endured them. This book may give you inspiration. You may need such a book right away, this book of “survival” by a woman who has lost the husband whom she has known and loved.

Others of you, however — and I am in this number — will find so many parts of this book annoying that we would consider dropkicking it from our porch roofs.

Annoying in what way? At one point, Abigail proudly tells us how when she moved she threw away all her diaries, including one about her marriage to Rich. During their marriage she also insists that they go to a remote cabin in the backwoods of Maine — a place, she says, where they can’t see another house or another person. Once there, however, she can’t sleep, convinced that an ax murderer will kill them in their beds, and so Rich drives them home a day early through a tremendous thunderstorm. She frequently tells us of her trips to Mexico, of her many hours of free time, of her dogs. Thomas even writes that “a couple of years ago, Denise and I were in Mexico, both of us counting the days until we would be back with our dogs. We were pathetic.” Thomas is absolutely correct — she is pathetic, damned pathetic. Couldn’t she at least feign an interest in seeing her husband? She does write that she tried one morning to get Rich on the phone. I was shocked that she wasn’t trying to talk to one of the dogs.

In parts of The Three Dog Life, Thomas seems anxious to tell us about connections she‘s made with her husband. When she calls Rich from Mexico, for example, she informs us that she is staring at tiles on a terra-cote counter. She asks Rich about his activities for the day. He tells her that he has made tiles. When she goes home, she checks with the art director of the home and discovers that neither her husband nor anyone else has made tiles that day. She offers this up as some sort of comment on him, some sort of extrasensory perception on his part, but never entertains the idea that he may have said something else, that she may have misinterpreted his words because of her own obsession with tiles.

There is, at bottom, a coldness in this account. Again I realize how stern, how condemning those words sound. Yet in neither the dedication of the book nor in the acknowledgements is Rich mentioned. Even within the book, he seems to take a poor third place to Mrs. Thomas’s concerns for her own well-being and for her dogs. She analyzes her wounded husband, but we never feel as if we know him.

As for Stephen King’s comments about memoirs, I would suggest that he avail himself of a public library, where he would find dozens of writers, ancient and modern, who offer much deeper wisdom and comforts in their tales of themselves.

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