If the title of Elizabeth McKenzie’s third novel (after The Portable Veblen) were the strangest thing about it, it would still be remarkable. Luckily for readers who like their books odd, haunting, strange and surprising, it isn’t.
As The Dog of the North begins, narrator Penny Rush is recently separated from her husband and heading from Salinas to Santa Barbara, California, where she knows she has problems waiting for her. Penny’s story intertwines with that of her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, a quirky, cantankerous hoarder who values privacy above all; and Burt, a lonely man who shares his toupee with his brother and loves his Pomeranian. Burt’s van is the titular Dog of the North, and it becomes Penny’s home and the place from which her adventures spring.
Penny is searching for connection, for meaning in her life after quitting her marriage and job. Throughout her episodic travels, there are missing parents, a grandfather ready for an adventure, strange objects that perform mysterious and surprising functions, Dr. Pincer’s science experiments, shared meals, injuries, ailments and bits of hope.
Penny’s voice is curious and kind; she’s empathetic and reserves judgment from both herself and others. Her route—through places and among people, through landscapes both internal and exterior—surprises her. She doesn’t know what she’ll find or who she’ll meet, and her openness allows experiences to take shape that otherwise simply could not. Her presence unsettles some characters, forcing them to share more than they might have intended, and this enables a deeper connection between McKenzie’s characters and the reader, illuminating challenges we could’ve missed.
Through Penny’s eyes, we see the beauty in the seemingly broken, in the flawed stories we tell ourselves—and what happens when those stories delightfully shatter.