A Blog’s Purpose

Book Report: A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron.

The novel A Dog’s Purpose is the best book written by a dog I have ever read. No, that’s not quite true. The book actually is written by the spirit of a dog. It’s the best book I’ve ever read by an ethereal being, outside of writings by Moses, the Buddha and guys like that.

That makes humor columnist W. Bruce Cameron the apostle of the nameless dog presence, seen corporeally through the bodies of Toby the mutt, Bailey the golden retriever, Ellie the German shepherd and Buddy the black Labrador retriever.

Because Bruce is known as a humorist, the requisite apostle’s halo might be a tricky fit. This is Bruce’s first published novel. I’ve heard him say that he has several unpublished novels and fiction has been his longtime dream. That sounds like I know him.

At this point I should note as a responsible journalist that this is a biased review because not only do I know Bruce but can call him a friend of several years. I know Bruce is my friend because he replies to my e-mails.

So read this review knowing it has opinions in it. As all critiques have bias by definition, there should be no surprises.

A Dog’s Purpose charmed me. It’s an unconventional novel, which these days means too many things. Unconventional might well mean something appealing to Creative Writing departments: Metafiction, deconstructionism, nonfiction in narrative form. Students and faculty might sniff at this book and turn tail. It wasn’t written for them; time to call a spay a spay.

What does a dog think? It takes a brave writer to sell that, and to adults, for this is not a children’s or young adult book (although mature kids and teens would enjoy it).

It turns out, according to the book, that dogs are not real smart and they are not real deep. Smart enough is enough, though, and deep is only so much baggage. The narrator does have a larger than expected vocabulary and conveys what even cat lovers know: Pets know love and fear, curiosity and caution, play and rage, essentially all the so-called human emotions. They have memory. They are rather helpless because for millennia they have depended on humans, even if that means tearing up garbage bags for food rather than hunting.

The narrative has a surety I was not expecting, as a debut novel. Bruce of course is an established writer, whose column collections have been best-sellers and adapted for television. He knows Oprah.

“Surety.” Novels of late have protagonists taking paragraphs or pages of considering what to do next. It can make the characters more realistic. With lesser writers a reader has to wonder if the author also doesn’t know what to do next. Great current writers have wonderful uncertain heroes: Stephen King, Ian McEwan and Michael Chabon. Acclaimed new writers like Gary Shteyngart, whose dithering dissipates genuine cleverness, are getting annoying, and I don’t finish their books.

Of course a dog would be sure-footed in decision making. But this author is drawing in ink, not charcoal. Maybe Bruce’s confidence comes from working on this book a long time. I suspect though that Bruce is a better storyteller, the deft line from Hemingway and Chandler to Carl Hiaasen.

Bruce recycles the protagonist so he (and she) grows a bit wiser each time. It’s not an Eastern, fully formed reincarnation but a plot device and a darned clever one.

That leads to a little dilemma. That each of the four pups is descended from the previous — though different breeds and generally different parts of the U.S. — can be a “spoiler.” If you know nothing of the book (ignorance can be a pleasure of reading because surprises are fun), you don’t see the soul migration until the second section begins.

I will hide behind the fact that the book’s jacket and published summaries, seen on Amazon and media reports, highlight the reincarnation angle, again and again and again. (Joke.)

I hate spoilers, yet it’s the only way to summarize Bruce’s story without giving away the better surprises, the deft suspense he builds chapter after chapter.

Forgive me. I mean, I just finished Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second of his trilogy. Then I read the reviews. Most of them explained who xxxx was in relation to yyyy, which blew me away when it was revealed rather late in the book. Knowing that first would have changed how I beheld a very good thriller. A few years ago I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s British imaginative novel Never Let Me Go. The movie version is coming out this month, and the trailer itself — not some spoilsport critic — gives away the surprise!

Thus, you won’t find here what happens to Toby, Bailey and the others, if they were good dogs or bad dogs. But if knowing their breeds kills it for you, oops!

While I cried and even gasped in shock a couple of times, A Dog’s Purpose carries almost no sentiment, because that’s not how dogs are. and this book is first-person-canine. Sentiment is a secondary emotion, coming from a digestion of pure feelings, which humans do to live with themselves. Dogs register just pure feelings.

I don’t read books like this, but recently there they are. I have read Marley & Me by John Grogan, made into a decent-enough movie, and Dewey by Vicki Myron, about a cat who lived in a library. Both are non-fiction, and A Dog’s Purpose is made-up. They are worthwhile, but there’s more truth in Bruce’s tale, and I know this because from it understand my dog Mani better. Mani has been with us over a year, and he is the first dog I’ve had since childhood. I treat the little guy very well, but now I can read him better.

Mani owes Bruce a knee-nuzzle.

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