Raymond Queneau’s book “Exercises in Style” from 1947 famously demonstrated 99 different ways of telling the same story. One that did not come up with was the concept of telling about a person’s life through the pets that have appeared in it – but Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs” provides a resonant argument that this approach might just works. It is certainly effective here, where Boylan writes touchingly about the dogs she has lived with from childhood to the Middle Ages.
The approach she takes with “Good Boy” also helps to distinguish it from her other non-fiction works, which have included memoirs focused on characteristic aspects of her life. While “Good Boy” covers a wide range of themes – from gender to creativity to parenting – the dogs provide the prism through which they are seen. And Boylan’s observations about the bonds between humans and dogs are both deeply felt and often moving.
“This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them and the way love helps us understand the people we have been,” Boylan writes early in the memoir. And just as dogs can inspire joy, fear and sadness depending on the circumstances, so “Good Boy” also covers a wide range of emotions. The dogs discussed here include the hyperactive Matt the Mutt; “Kennebec Valley Flycatcher” Lucy; and a round Dalmatian named Penny, who is eventually renamed Sausage.
The journey Boylan takes during this book covers much, including her childhood, her marriage, her transition from man to woman, and her experiences as a parent. If the Kennebec Valley reference above was not enough of an indicator, there is also quite a bit of Maine in it; Boylan taught at Colby College for many years and continues to live in Belgrade Lakes.
In many cases, the bonds Boylan has with different dogs enable her to show broken versions of other elements in her life. As one might expect in a book about dogs, this includes a lot of pondering about mortality and aging, as well as the basic difficulties associated with knowing someone.
But there are also memorable digressions that Boylan eventually brings around in the main narrative; years after she had left the book, a memory of Boylan’s old dog Penny emotionally devastating reappears. In another scene, Boylan learns about one of her dogs’ favorite music just before its death, and this is in line with Boylan’s previous discussions about music – from singer-songwriter John Prine to psych rockers Gong – elsewhere in the book .
Parts of “Good Boy” are overwhelmingly sad. Other scenes are crazy funny, including the stories of the aforementioned Matt the Mutt and Boylan’s memories of her teenage dogs. “And so we became a family of three Dalmatians, each a little more insane than the one who had come before,” she writes. This book does not shy away from weighty topics, but it also has a not insignificant number of funny stories about moving dogs – as well as a memorable appearance of a moose.
In the end, Boylan doesn’t just write about pets; she writes about them in the context of life, change and mortality. Early in the book, Boylan again visits to spend his first Thanksgiving at home without his older sister, who now lives across the country. “In the years since then, I have understood that this is exactly what is happening: You get used to a certain way of being in the world, and then it changes.” It is a quiet, profound statement made even more so by the significant changes that have shaken the world over the last two years.
“Why is it that what is so obvious to dogs is such a mystery to men and women?” asks Boylan towards the end of his book. And it is also here that “Good Boy” strikes a melancholy tone. After all, one can say that dogs have an emotional acuity that many people lack, and observational abilities that writers would envy. Can it provide moments of revelation to order his life after the dogs in it? “Good Boy” is an excellent case that it could.
New York resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Signs,” “Reel” and “Transient.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, Star Tribune and elsewhere.
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