Willie Morris' I-had-a-dog-once memoir

April 02, 1995|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,Special to The Sun

"My Dog Skip," by Willie Morris. 119 pages. New York: Random House. $15

Like most all-American boys of his generation, Willie Morris had a dog; unlike them, he decided to write a book about it. "My Dog Skip" is the story of Morris' decade-long association with a smooth-haired fox terrier who was friendly, loyal and intelligent. If such books are your bowl of Alpo, better buckle up now -- the next few hundred words are going to be bumpy.

The I-had-a-dog-once memoir is, of course, a time-honored literary genre, but this particular specimen is to books about dogs as "Annie" is to musical comedies.

Here is how "My Dog Skip" begins: "I came across a photograph of him not long ago, his black face with the long snout sniffing at something in the air, his tail straight and pointing, his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement." Here is how it ends: "They had buried him under our elm tree, they said -- yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart." What comes in between is as embarrassingly obvious as the bookends that enclose it. No opportunity to ring the changes of sentimentality is missed.

None of this would be cause for alarm, much less irritation, were it not for the fact that Willie Morris is not only an ex-dog owner but a moderately famous writer with an acute case of self-importance. Hence the fact that "My Dog Skip" contains two sets of cliches for the price of one. In addition to all the stock lines about dogs, we also get a stiff dose of significance: "All this was before the big supermarkets and shopping centers and affluent subdivisions with no sidewalks and the monster highways and the innocence lost." (You can tell this sentence is significant because of the absence of internal punctuation.)

The really irritating thing is that there is a slender, affecting tale trapped somewhere inside this gassy, overblown book. Though Morris works the small-town pedal a bit too hard, he has a marvelous eye for detail. What is missing from "My Dog Skip," and from everything else its author ever wrote, is a sense of selectivity. Presumably as a result of premature exposure to Thomas Wolfe, Morris writes in a boozily pseudopoetic style in which every other sentence contains at least one adjective too many: "The gigantic, hideous spider moved downward in its silken web." The British call this sort of thing "overegging the pudding," and this pudding contains enough eggs to choke a horse.

In a more sensible world, Willie Morris would have slashed "My Dog Skip" to half its current length, published it in a magazine and included it in a collection of essays. But Morris is a longtime sufferer from the same species of verbal elephantiasis that afflicted so many of his contemporaries (the southern-born ones in particular).

Indeed, he was a well-known carrier of the disease. Under his editorship, Harper's Magazine published such monuments to ego run rampant as Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," and thought it was doing the republic of letters a service. No doubt Morris thinks he's now doing for dogs what Mailer did for the antiwar movement. Maybe he's right.

Terry Teachout, arts columnist of the New York Daily News, editor of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" (just out from Knopf) and a regular contributor to this page, was an editor at Harper's Magazine from 1985 to 1987. His books include "City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy." He is currently at work on a biography of H. L. Mencken.

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