'Dog Love' -- inexplicable acts, attitude

September 29, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

"Dog Love," by Marjorie Garber. Simon and Shuster,$24.

There is a computer program, Dogz, that allows one to download a pet. A colleague and fellow dog-lover described its wonders to me one day and I was entranced, although not enough to secure my own version, as any cyberdog would be a poor substitute for the flesh-and-blood canines in my household. For one thing, cyberdogs don't shed.

"Dog Love," by the cultural critic Marjorie Garber, falls into the same category as Dogz: Witty, intriguing, full of charming observations and anecdotes, but who is the intended audience? Those lucky enough to live with dogs should have long ago intuited the conclusions reached here. Dogs, by being dogs, make us more human. They are our better halves. Or, as Garber writes: "The tail wags the dog. The dog wags us."

Then again, Garber does provide the beleaguered dog owner with a wealth of literary and historical references to fling in the faces of those inexplicable dog-haters. How reassuring to know Virginia Woolf and W.H. Auden wrote about dogs. ("Probably you only hear vowels," the British poet concluded.) How bracing to be reminded of loyal Argus, who waited 20 years for Odysseus to return. And I am eternally grateful for this bit of poetry from Emily Dickinson: "Carlo died - E. Dickinson. Would you instruct me now?"

With chapters on everything from a dog's life to a dog's death, "Dog Love" is not unlike a box of Milkbones, the vari-colored ones purportedly offering different flavors. Powered by Garber's delight in her subject, it skips from topic to topic, chasing down whatever idea catches her fancy. She falls down a rabbit hole or two along the way: A section on the asexual allure of the dog in the old Coppertone ads leads us to a parody of that ad, with comedian Jim Carrey, which takes us - I'll spare you the precise details - to the, um, gaseous French vaudevillian La Petomane. "There is a joke in here somewhere," Garber muses. Trust me, there's not.

Inevitably, there are omissions. Of course Garber has to write at length about Lassie, but what about Edward, the Welsh corgi from Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist," and my nominee for best dog in 20th Century American Literature? I also would have appreciated a chapter on why dogs provoke endless puns, even in a writer as thoughtful and precise as Garber. (Subheadings here include "Heavy Petting" and "A Mann and his Dog.")

I can blame this proclivity on canine puns only on Dog Love, the gooey sensation to which one surrenders when a dog enters one's life and a whole new range of activities suddenly seems appropriate. Talking to your dog. Sleeping with your dog. Singing to your dog. Reading your dog's horoscope out loud at the breakfast table.

At least, I've heard some dog owners do these things.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer for The Sun who has writte about Baltimore's obsession with Barkley, the Chesapeake Bay retriever "walked" from a moving car, and her own dog's attendance at the first-ever major league baseball game to admit dogs. She shares her home with Spike, a springer spaniel, and Dulcie, a retired racing greyhound. Her first novel, "Baltimore Blues," will be published by Avon Books this winter.

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