Caroline Knapp on puppy love

June 28, 1998|By Brenda Becker | Brenda Becker,Special to the sun

"Pack of Two: The Intricate Bonds Between People and Dogs," by Caroline Knapp. Dial Press. 252 pages. $21.96. If you are not a dog person - or even an animal person - don't presume this book will leave you cold. Caroline Knapp's memoir and meditation on living with dogs, in particular with her dog Lucille, is a disturbingly intense and insightful journey into the shared terrain of human and beast. Those who inhabit that terrain, and those who wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot leash, will both find "Pack of Two" illuminating.

Knapp pulls off the impressive feat of writing about puppy love, the mutual canine/human variety, without a speck of sentimentality. She Freely admits that the life she has built around Lucille could be construed as that of a pathetic "get a life" eccentric, her dog a substitute for alcohol, relationships, children. (Knapp, a recovering alcoholic, wrote about her intimate bond with the bottle in her previous book, "Drinking.") But she also deconstructs, with grace and candor, the facile bits of doggie wisdom that have fed our national Lassie myth.

On dogs' much-touted capacity for "unconditional love," for example, Knapp protests that our role is more than just absorbing those sloppy kisses and warm canine gazes. Dogs allow us to feel "closeness without claustrophobia, a sensation that's akin to unqualified love but is actually a little more complex - and a little easier to take." (People who claim that they only receive perfect love from dogs, not people, should imagine their husband or wife sleeping worshipfully at their feet and springing to attention at their slightest move, she advises tartly.) For Knapp, a cagey soul when it comes to human entanglements, Lucille is more than a best friend, she's a healer, turning isolation into companionable solitude.

The book is full of memorable character sketches and anecdotes of dog owners even more over-the-top than Knapp: the woman from an abusive past whose dog helps her resist the daily temptation to suicide, the man who endangers his job by bringing his dog to important business meetings because he can't bear any separation.

Knapp analyzes these poor souls and their dogs with tenderness and intelligence. In the process, she also does a fine job of explaining what makes dogs tick - the inborn need to exist in a hierarchy, a pack - and how it gets interwoven with needy humans and their messed-up lives.

The flip side of our Lassie myth, Knapp points out, is our culture's contempt for those who go too far - the folks who buy Gucci boots for their dogs, or leave them their fortune, or mourn them with the help of pet bereavement therapists.

"Dog love, popular wisdom suggests, should be limited love," she says, before admitting to a love that is unsettlingly free of limits. "Pack of Two" will elicit groans of empathy from dog lovers; for cat people, it will introduce another language and culture to those already well-traveled in interspecies bonding; and for those who just aren't "animal people," and roll their eyes at those who are, it should be required reading.

Brenda L. Becker is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines, including Woman's Day and Patient Care; co-author of "Week by Week to a Strong Heart" (Rodale, 1992); a two-time winner of national awards for writing on cardiovascular disease; and a contributor to journals of opinion including the American Spectator and National Review.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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