Auster's 'Timbuktu': still a dog's life

June 13, 1999|By Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger,Special to the Sun

"Timbuktu," by Paul Auster. Henry Holt & Co. 180 pages. $23.

Paul Auster, who first entertained us in the New York trilogy, a trio of odd novellas that were certainly inventive in style and point of view, has, over the last 20 years, written a string of inventive books. He has, as they used to say of John Hersey, never written the same book twice. This is laudatory as long as you provide a story to sustain the changes in style and pacing that result from inventiveness. With Auster, sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn't.

The intriguing and inventive point of view here is of a dog, a nice, friendly, wise dog who can understand at least the gist of what humans beings are saying. His first master is a luckless itinerant (itinerant by choice) who leads him on peripatetic jaunts that include late nights getting sloshed in bars and then sleeping rough.

This is fine with the dog who is content to listen to his master's endless chatter on all subjects. But life on the streets (of Baltimore) is harder on the man than the dog and on a cold night, searching insanely for his old high school English teacher, the old man dies. The dog is left with nothing but the acres of advice and opinion he has listened to over the years. With nothing more he sets out to ... well, to survive.

Writing from this point of view, that is 18 inches from the pavement in constant search for food and shelter, Auster succeeds in a way. The dog, who is stuck with the hippie-ish name Mr. Bones, knows that the treatment of the canine world by the human world is a sometime thing, able to provide comfort and indolence or inexplicable savagery all within the same moment. But his skill at understanding human speech helps him get ahead of each situation. (It helps the reader as well.)

Dogs are said to be true philosophers; they love what they know. In a wonderful passage, Mr. Bones befriends a small Chinese boy whose family owns a restaurant. But his previous owner warned him that the Chinese eat dog and that he must never go near a Chinese kitchen.

The boy keeps him secretly in the back yard and brings him leftovers with brown sauce and rice. He develops a taste for it, suddenly realizing that if the warning was correct he may well now be a cannibal. This causes only a momentary pause in his wolfing.

Auster's writing, like his films ("Smoke" and "Blue in the Face") tend to drift along requiring the indulgence of a reader who would like something to happen every so often. Sometimes the monologues and reveries are very entertaining, since Auster can be wonderfully weird and dreamy, but it is an acquired taste. His fans, and I am one, will appreciate the courage it takes to write a novel through a dog's eyes.

He is certainly a dog lover. But this doesn't alter the fact that unless a touch of Richard Adams is added, that is, unless the dog starts to have slightly human experiences and reactions, just for the amusement of it, a dog's life is, well, just that.

Jeff Danziger has written for the New York Daily News, the Christian Science Monitor and is a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. He wrote "Rising Like the Tucson," and a children's book, "The Champlain Monster."

Pub Date: 06/13/99

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