'Rufus Chronicle': to live while alive

July 26, 1998|By Vincent Fitzpatrick | Vincent Fitzpatrick,Special to the sun

"The Rufus Chronicle: Another Autumn," by C.W. Gusewelle. Ballantine. 217 pages. $19.95. Some men learn about forgiveness by studying the lives of saints," C. W. Gusewelle remarks winningly in "The Rufus Chronicle," his lively account of nearly 13 years, and 12 autumns in the field, with a lively Brittany spaniel. "And some of us keep dogs."

A quail hunter and author of five previous books, Gusewelle is an associate editor and columnist with the Kansas City Star, and his columns about Rufus originally appeared there. They proved so popular that they generated a volume, self-published in 1996, which sold about 14,000 copies. Ballantine Books has made a wise decision to place this engaging volume before a larger audience.

This chronicle carries Rufus from birth to death and its author through some of his middle years. Gusewelle first saw Rufus, only a few days old, as "a rubbery tangle of orange and white." In time, he found himself with a mischievous dog that chewed and dug, stole food and slept on the furniture, and sailed over fences.

He also found himself "a very uncommon companion" with whom to share the "autumns of our extended childhoods." He found in Rufus "the best company I know" and "the brother I never had." Inevitably, this dog "who devoured the fields in a tireless gulp" grew old and weak and had to be put down. Readers who have been there when their dog is euthanized and have dug the grave and marked the spot - no matter how brightly the sun may shine, it is a dark, cold day - will not move quickly through the book's conclusion.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the tale of a dog loved and lost can degenerate into awful sentimentality. But there is no bathos here, no treacle, and this reader never felt manipulated.

In this volume both celebratory and elegiac, the author stumbles only when he becomes polemical and attacks those who attack hunting, but this is only a small misstep. Gusewelle is a reflective man who writes gracefully. At its best, his prose is crystalline.

It is, of course, his gift as a writer that allows him to repay, through the currency of art, some of his debt to this uncommon companion. Rufus joins such celebrated American canines as Gipson's Old Yeller, Jack London's Buck and Faulkner's Lion, Willie Morris' Skip and Truman Capote's Queenie - all different but all revered, all now impervious to the savage onslaught of time but all captured for posterity in black ink.

It is about this savage rush of time, and our response to it, that the author writes most poignantly. All creatures, dogs and men alike, are transients on this earth, and the dog's life, a compressed version of our own, offers strong intimations of our own mortality.

The years "go like leaf smoke," the author laments, but we foolish humans squander our time on inconsequential things - scurrying to meet another meaningless deadline, working more hours to make more money to buy more things that we don't need. When we finally have the sense to pause, we find that friends have died, that the children have grown, and that we are old.

"The Rufus Chronicle" reaffirms advice offered millennia ago by Epicurus: "Let us live while we are alive." Gusewelle celebrates those glorious "truant days" spent with a dog in the field. We humans teach our dogs, of course, but they teach even more to those who have the sense to pay attention.

A native Baltimorean, Vincent Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book." He recently finished writing "Gerald W. Johnson: A Life." In early 1994, he buried his older Dalmatian, Jeb, who had died before his time.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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