Monday, June 20, 2016

Dogs Will be Dogs

Book Review: Dancing Dogs by Jon Katz

"It is well to bear in mind that the truth about dogs is as elusive as the truth about man. You cannot put your finger on any quality and safely say, 'This is doglike,' nor on any other quality and say, 'This is not.' Dogs are individualists." - James Thurber

What made James Thurber the quintessential writer of dog stories is that his dog tales are as individual as the tail on a dog. Although all are written in the inimitable Thurber style, the resemblance ends there. From Muggs to Rex, Medve to Jeannie, the stories of Thurber's Dogs are as unique as the dogs themselves. Thurber's dogs are allowed to have their own character, and characters they are. They are not larger than life, but they are very much alive, and Thurber's love and respect for both the dogs and their stories shows clearly in the telling.

Which brings me (belatedly) to Dancing Dogs, my introduction to the work of author Jon Katz. Based only on this single work, I am not about to put him in the same rank as James Thurber, but at its best Dancing Dogs does evoke the spirit of Thurber; if for no other reason that Katz lets his dogs be dogs.

In case you missed the fact that the book is clearly classified as "Literature and Fiction," and a collection of short stories, let me make it clear: this is a collection of fictional short stories. Apparently this was not clear to several reviewers who detest short stories and dislike fiction. I would assume these are the same people who acquire a dog hoping that it will become something else: the child they never had, an obedient slave, or a target for anger and frustration. It is a tribute to the dogs that they will unquestioningly attempt to become that other thing, in the process becoming as neurotic as their owner.

Over the several thousand years that man and dog have shared existence, the dog has become more than just another domestic animal. The dog's close association with mankind has not always been to their benefit, but it has certainly given them insight into what makes people tick. In Dancing Dogs, Katz delves into this wonderful and mysterious relationship in which dogs and humans become more than just man and beast. Not all dogs are perfect, neither are all humans, but together they are capable of transcending those limitations to reflect the better side of each.

What makes a story true is not whether it is fiction or non-fiction, but rather the veracity of what it shows us about ourselves. With 7 billion people and a billion dogs on this planet, can anyone say that any of Katz's stories has not 'really' happened? More importantly, does it matter? The characters in Dancing Dogs are enlightened and enriched by the relationship forged between man and dog over the millennia; based on my own life I know this to be true, and Jon Katz brings this truth home in a series of (short) stories that capture the beauty, joy, and unvarnished reality that a dog can bring to our lives.