Life is ultimately about death, and nowhere is the reminder more poignant than in the brief and bittersweet relationship with a companion animal. Intense gratitude and joy mingled with sadness is a sort of concrete upon which adult life is built, writes Mark Doty, and this bedrock underlies the complex relationships with two special dogs captured in his memoir, Dog Years.
Good writing about animals is almost always about something else, says Doty, an award-winning poet and writer who has been honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction, the T.S. Eliot Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The dogs as they always are are a vehicle to think about other things. Those things include an intimate chunk of Doty's life nursing his partner Wally who was dying of AIDS; writing; teaching college students; fixing up their 200-year-old house in Provincetown on Cape Cod; and caring for their dog, a shaggy black Lab-Newfie mix named Arden, an animal utterly devoted to the sick man.
When Wally requests a little lap dog to comfort him (Arden has gained so much weight after being fed the bacon meant to tempt the patient that he can't jump on the bed), Doty comes back with shelter dog Beau, a skinny, rambunctious Saluki-golden retriever mix who brings a much-needed chaotic, bounding energy to their house.
If you set out to write a full-length memoir about your pets, you're asking for trouble, Doty admits with a laugh. Who's not going to roll their eyes? People lack distance from their pets, just like they do from their children or their dreams. I thought from the beginning that I was doing something unlikely with this book. Determined to make this compelling to the reader, even though it shouldn't be, Doty is careful with telling moments and scenes that flesh out the laconic and contemplative Arden and the young whirlwind Beau, companions on the trajectory of his life. Elegiac and funny chapters are trailed by brief, delicate entr'actes, with tiny observations, like the thump of an arthritic dog's tail, and huge gaping gashes in life, like the death of a loved one, given equal weight and clarity.
Animals' lack of language feels like an invitation to the writer, Doty says. I wanted to talk about the role they had played in my adventures, but I also wanted them to stand on their own four feet, as distinct characters. He catalogs their sweet routines (one involves Arden being stretched by the legs between the two men as he growls appreciatively), their winsome quirks (Beau's obsession with the minute crumbs and leftovers tossed from seafood shacks and Dumpsters along the sea) and their hair-raising escapades (Arden is hit by a car after chasing a rabbit from a hedge, but found a bit dazed the following day, thanks to their tight-knit community). They're animals, that's part of what makes their company so pleasurable, Doty notes. They're not human beings! We can know that about them, without forgetting that they also have real emotional lives, and that they are complicated beings that we get to know at least to some degree. Animal company invites us to language, Doty said, because there they are, brimming with feeling and clearly thinking, but not having any words at all. There's a part of me that's a little jealous of that. How wonderful to be immersed in experience and not caught up in the world of words. But the bright always has a shadow, and so come the inevitable leave-takings: first Wally, then Beau as a young dog from kidney disease, and then most heartbreakingly, the valiant Arden. Cloaked in nearly unthinkable abundance and unutterable sorrow, the book is a deadened twinkling landscape of the human heart, with snow-covered undulating dunes and twisting roads, but also shining bright spots: Doty falls in love again and gains another companion who shares his love of dogs, and the emotional landscape, always slanted downhill, remains buoyant and oddly hopeful.
Cute dog stories and cute dog pictures don't really satisfy me, Doty said. So often they don't quite get it right. They make it cute instead of true. Dog Years points out what is true and dignified and magical about life with animals; rather than seeking out the exotic or new, we want to see the ordinary more clearly, Doty said, and there is no better way than through our dogs.
Somehow, memory seems too slight a word, too evanescent, Doty writes about taking a walk after the death of Beau. This is almost a physical sensation, the sound of those paws, and it comes allied to the color and heat of him, the smell of warm fur, the kinetic life of being hardly ever still: what lives in me.