Chasing a Tale

Book report: A Dog’s Journey: Another Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron, 2012

Bruce Cameron’s novels make me scream.

I read novels, not as many as I would like, maybe one and a half a month. Literary novels — the popular ones far more than ones from small publishers, I’m afraid — and the occasional mass-market-but-sophisticated thriller (John le Carre) or mystery (Michael Connelly) are the ones keep my attention. This is important, because I read silently. I’m an old boy by now so of course I don’t move my lips.

It’s probably abnormal at any point to shout at a book in the way my wife claims that I do watching cable television “news.” At the cinema I laugh and sometimes choke back sobs — in the dark I tend to be both sentimental and gullible — but I like to think that I refrain from giving movie characters advice. Even as I wish they could hear me.

Yet once again I have startled my wife and surprised myself by exclaiming in full throat when W. Bruce Cameron’s canine charmer finds itself in harm’s way.

“Oh no” was my favorite shout. Chasing along in second was “That bitch,” which is not cursing in a book where a dog — rather a dog’s spirit — is the first-person narrator.

Bo, the dog of President Barack Obama, amuses Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi
President Barack Obama and Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi pet Bo, the Obama family dog, in the Oval Office on 19 September 2012. With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and an aide.
Pete Souza / The White House

Wait, it’s not first person in this case. It cannot be first dog, either, because that is Bo Obama. Regardless, I don’t shout the b-word about a canine but a certain human in the course of A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to the popular A Dog’s Purpose.

I did not intend to become so emotionally involved in this book. I thought I would be more objective having enjoyed every morsel of A Dog’s Purpose. But I did dive through A Dog’s Journey like a bowl of kibble. Oh I regret calling that character that noun, given what eventually happens with her. A little. That of course is one measure of Cameron’s talent, making lousy people sympathetic, three-dimensional.

The protagonist once again is a dog, rather the essence of a dog who lives a doggy life that in the best circumstances isn’t very long (in human years) and in the worst, brutally short. As before, this dog gets reincarnated, and we readers travel through its lives (“it” because the pup’s sex changes at birth, along with breed and location).

The same essence, let’s call it Toby, the first puppy we meet in A Dog’s Purpose, gets a series of human masters through both books. The people soon enough are linked. Toby has a variety of tasks, well, purposes along the way, aiding the good people.

The recitation should stop there, partly to not give away plot but to emphasize these adventures are not as a child might understand them but adults. The cheery book jacket may indicate a youth volume, but it’s for grown-ups. Still, children would appreciate the novel.

Cameron uses his reincarnation device not just to tell the story of CJ, the sole human hero in the sequel A Dog’s Journey, but to show human drama from a unique perspective, about 5-15 inches from the ground, depending on which incarnation we’re at in the course of the book.

I can’t explain why this series made me shout. I keep my emotions in check with a Michael Chabon or a Jennifer Egan. And I can’t put Cameron at their level of storytelling. He is likely capable of it, but that’s not his intent in these two books, not complexity and ambiguity and commentary on contemporary Western culture like these folks. Cameron drives straight toward love and whatever its opposite might be.

It’s not hate, he indicates. Antipathy? Disgust? Scorn? “Dis-love” might often approach fear as a word. When people in his books dis-love dogs enough to hurt them, or maybe not rescue them, it’s not hate. It’s complex.

And the contrast between the two is something to yell about.

Cameron, who has spent most of his writing career as a successful humor columnist, keeps the reader’s attention, builds and sustains suspense, drops in true surprises that fit the narrative, and creates characters about whom the reader cares deeply. Deeply enough to scream at or scream over. And occasionally makes the reader tear up.

A Dog’s Journey stands on its own but I recommend reading A Dog’s Purpose first. You will never look at your dog — or in my home dogs as well as cats — the same. All the same, I look forward to Cameron’s next novel and hope he moves on to a human protagonist. He needs to develop, and I don’t think he can take or should the dog motif further, except perhaps in a screenplay adaption. That I’d love to see.

Besides, I don’t think I can take the heartache of following Toby through a third set of breeds, adventures, and ignorant or cruel humans along one side and fallible yet loving humans on the other.

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