Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rules of Civility and A Dog’s Purpose

This is a continuation of the previous entry, two other books I enjoyed reading on the cruise.  Rules of Civility is the debut novel of Amor Towles who in “real life” is a “principal at an investment firm in Manhattan.”  In this regard he reminds me of a much younger version of Louis Begley, another professional (although a lawyer), who also stepped across the line into fiction writing.  Towles does so successfully as well, managing to capture a time, place, and social strata with a keen eye, one that makes the novel compelling reading. Think of the times of F. Scott Fitzgerald, combined with the insights of Edith Wharton into privileged society, along with some punchy sentences reminiscent of Mickey Spillane. (E.G.: “The driver put the cab in gear and Broadway began slipping by the windows like a string of lights being pulled off a Christmas tree.”  Or “The looked like they wouldn’t know skinny if it was wrapped in cellophane and sold at the five-and-dime.”)

Unusual, it’s a first person female narration although the novel is written by a man.  Our likeable protagonist, Katey Kontent, with grit and some fortuitous luck, finds herself navigating from her start in a secretarial pool into the somewhat shark infested waters of New York City’s upper class in 1938.  The art deco style scene is infested with some very rich people, and she and her friend Eve – actually roommates at the time – both set their sights on Tinker, an ostensibly very rich, attractive man.  Eve is the Machiavellian predator while Katey actually loves him.  But like much of life, things are not the way they seem.  Tinker has a dark secret as he follows his guide, the “110 rules” originally penned by the young George Washington, from which the novel derives its title, Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.

And there is a central theme that ties everything together in the novel when Katey realizes….

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time-by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York' Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?  

In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions-we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.

In that regard, Wallace Stegner (see previous entry) would completely agree!

Rules of Civility is a noteworthy first novel and I am looking forward to Towles’ next work.

On to a touching work, very original as it is written from a “first dog’s” point of view.  Yes, dogs can think and write!  We just have to suspend belief and sit back and enjoy. I have my son, Jonathan, to thank for bringing this book to my attention, sort of a children’s book for adults, a simple and moving parable.  I think you have to love dogs to read A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron.  Dogs have been a good part of my life, but, alas, not for the last ten years.

I was about eight years old when my parents picked up my first puppy, a pedigree Boxer which for some reason, one that I do not recall, we named Jo-Jo.  He was a great watch dog and but was raised slightly to be slightly neurotic so he acted out some bad behavior.  With my sister and myself he was like another sibling and we could do anything to him, ride him, dress him up nonsensically (here we had a sailor’s hat on him and a cigarette dangling from his mouth), roughhouse with him (he always being gentle with us).  But leave him alone and he’d practically wreck the house.  It got so bad that our family once reluctantly left him in the basement.  What could he hurt there?  Well, we had an old coal furnace which was converted to an oil burner and when we returned home he had charged, battered, and wrecked the furnace.   Thereafter, he had to be left tied up when we were gone.

But I loved Jo-Jo and was always with him, remembering taking him to the Veterinarian with my parents when he was only eight or nine as he was ill, watching him be put in a cage, he looking back at me with sad eyes. The Vet said he should be fine, pick him up in the morning.  But he wasn’t and he had died before we returned the next morning of nephritis, apparently quite common in boxers. I was devastated and it took a long time to get over it.   My parents eventually got another boxer, named Sock (his white paws looked like socks).  But by that time I was off at college and never really bonded with him.

When Ann and I moved to Westport from New York, it seemed like everyone had dogs, so we found ourselves doggie window shopping and suddenly we had a Miniature Schnauzer pup, who we named Lilly.  She lived 16 years and was really like our first child.  We spoiled her rotten and loved her madly.  She was the smartest of the dogs I’ve known (maybe she’s really the author of A Dog’s Purpose :-).  She lived in our first two homes and even was part of our early boating life. When Jonathan was born, she reluctantly put up with his toddler taunting. 

We were putting an addition on the house and noticed she was losing her bodily functions on the unfinished floor.  She was also going blind and deaf so we took her on that long ride to the Vet.  I don’t think Ann and I cried so much in our lives.  We resolved, never again could we go through that.

So there was no dog in our life for a few years, no intent to get a dog, but one day I saw a little classified ad in the Westport News, “Miniature Schnauzer puppy available to a loving family.”  What harm we asked ourselves to at least see the dog?  “Please, please, please” our 12 year old Jonathan begged, “I’ll take care of her.”  OK, so we called the number and the woman on the line explained it was her recently deceased father’s dog, actually one of two fully house broken Schnauzer puppies he had had, brother and sister, named after Morse Code pulses, “Dot” and “Dash.”  The male pup had already been adopted but we wanted the female anyhow, so she agreed to a “test run,” we taking the dog overnight and we’ll see how it goes.  Well, Dot (who we called “Dotty”) came to visit and never left. 

Jonathan’s promise to feed and walk the dog lasted for a few weeks and then Dotty was our responsibility.  And once he went off to college, it was like it used to be, just our dog and Ann and me. She was game for anything and spent many nights and weeks with us on our boat, my rowing her to an island nearby our mooring to do her business.  She went with us on our most adventuresome trips, finally moving to Florida with us and finding a new sport, catching geckoes.  When Ann was out, she would always be by my side or on my lap if I was reading or watching TV.

By the time she turned 14, her health was declining and we could tell the time was coming for that dreaded ride to the Vet.  We couldn’t face it and about that time my mother died.  The day of my mother’s funeral, poor Dotty looked up at us from her bed, from which she couldn’t rise, and we knew that when we returned we’d have to make that trip.  We checked with the Vet.  He’d be there.  So when we returned from my mother’s funeral, we tremulously approached her bed.  She didn’t stir.  She had obviously just died, sparing us on the one hand but, given the day we had just gone through, adding so much to our grief.  I don’t know how we got her body to the Vet as the tears poured from me as I drove those ten minutes.  I needed windshield wipers for my eyes.  We agreed to cremation and a few weeks later received a Plaster of Paris imprint of her paws.  We still have that, but I can’t bear to look at it.

We are now resolved, we could never go through that again.

So there you have it, full disclosure for my reading of A Dog’s Purpose, which as I said, is written from a dog’s perspective.  This particular narrator is not only one dog, but is reincarnated to truly discover “a dog’s purpose.”   He/she segues from Bailey to Ellie to Buddy in the novel, three separate but related lives, learning in the first life the meaning of love, “the boy” as Bailey refers to Ethan, “this was, I decided, my purpose as a dog, to comfort the boy whenever he needed me.”  But dogs (see my own story) do not live long, and eventually Bailey must “leave,” being reassured by “the boy” as he departs this life, that “you were a good dog.” 

He is reincarnated as a new-born pup, eventually named Ellie, and trains as a search and rescue dog and during her career makes a number of rescues, including the emotional rescue of his masters, first Jakob, and then Maya, “I had a clear purpose – to Find, Show, and save people.  I was a good dog.  Both Maya and Jakob were focused on work, and that meant neither one of them could ever love me with the utter abandon of Ethan.”

Ellie is then reborn as Buddy, but it is a rocky start for him (first named Bear-Bear by uncaring owners).  He is abandoned in the woods by them, and by the time he finds himself back to civilization – eating garbage along the way, he is distraught.  “I was a dog who had learned to live among and serve humans as my sole purpose in life.  Now, cut off from them, I was adrift.  I had no purpose, no destiny, no hope.”   However, he finally finds a new owner, is renamed “Buddy,” and to go into much more detail is to get into spoilers although I sort of guessed where it was going. 

This novel would devour a full tissue box if Ann had read it.  It was touching and one must credit the author, W. Bruce Cameron, for his imaginative tale.  It is a gentle reminder that we all need to find our purpose in life and then find a way to fulfill it.  Buddy nee Ellie nee Bailey certainly did.

As Bailey exclaims:  “dogs have important jobs, like barking when the doorbell rings, but cats have no function in a house whatsoever.”