When I first got Frankie, I had fantasies about taking long contemplative walks with him, during which I would ponder my surroundings and the nature of the universe and after which I would transfer my deep thoughts to paper.
Aside from the fact that Frankie has little, short legs and follows close behind me rather than leading me to explore new territory, I found that I had little to say about my surroundings, which pretty much stayed the same, and that I preferred listening to books on CD or walking with other people to contemplating the universe.
Luckily, John Zeaman, with the help of his long-legged, inquisitive dog, Pete, and his ability to look at nature with an artist’s eye — he is both painter and art critic — has done the job for me in Dog Walks Man: A Six-Legged Odessey, and far better than I could have. Which relieves me of guilt and pressure. At least about this particular thing.
Zeaman also has the ability to look at the world of dog people with gentle satire and at himself with self-deprecating humor. Although he often compares himself with Henry David Thoreau because of his interest in the outdoors, I think he’s far more akin to Jane Austen, a keen observer of society (this is high praise; hate him, love her). I’ll spare you the rant. I mention Thoreau only because, if you feel the same way as I do about that humorless pontificating hypocrite, I don’t want you to be put off Zeaman’s book.
Its title notwithstanding, this book isn’t all that focused on dogs — or, perhaps I should say, it would be easy to enjoy even if you’re not canine oriented. But the astute observations about Pete and his kind are a bonus. (By the way, Pete, like John Steinbeck’s Charley, is a standard poodle. There must be a subgenre of meditative-men-and-poodle literature.)
For example, Zeaman does his research and knows about dominance theory but rejects it from a common sense perspective:
I never bothered with the “alpha-dog” theory. I don’t think Pete saw me as a dog, much less a subordinate one, or that we were in any kind of power struggle for hierarchy points. Pete could be pretty stubborn, and there were times when he questioned my judgment. But so what? There were times that he was right…. He could have been more mindful of me, I suppose, but then again it was never Pete’s idea — or any dog’s — that he be tethered to me and coordinate his movements, like a partner in a silly three-legged race.
Zeaman never romanticizes Pete or the activity of dog-walking; he calls himself, and the other suburban fathers forced to take on dog-tending duty, “a dupe.” His recognition of the nature of their relationship is clear-headed, and it’s one of the many joys of the book.
Spoiler alert: Don’t read the next two paragraphs if you haven’t finished Dog Walks Man.
There is only one part, towards the end, when I began getting mighty irritated with the narrator: He begins forcing the aging Pete to walk up ramps and take car rides and walks against his will. But to his credit, Zeaman comes to acknowledge his selfishness with brutal self-examination and honesty:
I had told myself that [walking] was some important purchase on life for him. The walk! To walk was to be alive!… But I was beginning to think that I hadn’t been doing it so much for him as for myself. It was me. I had become the one who needed to go on walks. We had reversed roles.
I further realized that on some childish level, I had been angry with him for not wanting to go anymore.
It’s the rare dog lover who doesn’t see her dog as a reflection of herself; it’s the rare writer who acknowledges that fact and expresses its pitfalls so articulately.
In the end, the book is not about dogs or about man and nature, but about being fully engaged, about observing and celebrating and mourning growth and loss and change.
If there happens to be a dog or two as part of the process, all the better.
To see what I had to say about the book’s literary aspects, and particularly its setting in the Meadowlands, New Jersey, please go over to A Traveler’s Library and read Pet Travel Book Club goes to the Meadowlands.
I’d love to know what you think of the book on both sites — dogwise here and literarily there. Or mix it up. My pal Vera Marie Badertscher and I are open to any opinions except rude and hostile ones. And we usually even allow those because it’s the commenters who look like jerks.
Haven’t read the book but want to now? You still have a chance to purchase signed copies of the paperback and the hardcover editions of Dog Walks Man at a discount, including shipping charges. To order these signed, discounted copies directly from the publisher, contact Amy Alexander at 203.458.4541 or e-mail Amy.Alexander at globepequot.com. Signed hardcovers are $20, signed paperbacks are $15, and prices include tax and shipping.
So — as I wrote at the end of my Pet Blogger Challenge post, I’m wrapping up my involvement in the Pet Travel Book Club and other regular features on this blog to start on another project. But I don’t want to let the Pet Travel Book Club meet an untimely demise. I’m not going to divulge any details — because I don’t have any yet — but look for its reincarnation on one of my favorite blogs as well as on A Traveler’s Library.
Update: I was waiting for both parties to sign off but it’s official: Pamela Webster of Something Wagging This Way Comes is going to be taking over the book club. With a punny literary name like that for her dog blog, it was clearly meant to be. And I know Pamela will do such a terrific job, you’ll forget you ever knew me.
But you commenters are pissing me off. You’re putting in such interesting, intelligent comments that I’m starting to regret that I’m leaving. Can we please lower the level of this conversation? Talk about Kim Kardashian, maybe?