FEBRUARY 7, 2016
FOR MRS. BEALE, an elderly widow who fancies herself the only civilized resident in the fictional village of Suzanne Berne’s new The Dogs of Littlefield, there are two kinds of people in the world: whatever kind you are, and those of “the other persuasion.” In this case, the former are Dog People, while the latter are decidedly not. One of the latter number, in fact, is a person so evangelical about protecting Littlefield from the evils of dogs, he or she has begun poisoning the town’s substantial canine population, one scofflaw cur at a time.
Dark, sure, but it’s the motivation behind the poisonings — the battle over a proposed off-leash dog park, pitting neighbor against neighbor — that proves to be the novel’s main source of light. That light shines brightest about a quarter of the way in, when, at an uproarious town hall meeting Littlefield’s citizens prove to be even more rambunctious than their pets. But while Berne, the author of three previous novels, covers new ground here tonally, readers should prepare for more than a romp in the park; she deftly balances social satire with the psychological insight and deep unease that will be familiar to fans of her previous work.
It very quickly becomes clear in The Dogs of Littlefield that Berne’s concern for our collective safety has only intensified since writing her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood (which won the Orange Prize in 1999). Something is still out there, though this time around the danger is coming from inside the house, as well as out there in the woods behind the field for which the town is apparently named. Charming as it is (Littlefield has actually been deemed one of the “20 Best Places to Live in America”) no one is safe here, neither canine nor human — the former endangered by those who hate them for their freedom; the latter threatened by themselves, or at least by the way they’re letting life have its way with them.
In chapters that hop from one consciousness to another, we delve — deeply — into the hearts and minds of the town’s citizens. The identity of the poisoner would be mystery enough to pull a reader through the story, but in a subtle magic trick on Berne’s part, this question loses its power the more pages we turn. For in the course of getting to know the many suspects — and victims — we uncover psyches damaged enough to call Littlefield’s goody-goody reputation (to say nothing of the qualifications of its 1,146 psychotherapists and 679 psychiatrists) into question.
There’s a war on in the town, and it’s not about leash laws. The theme of Us against Them crops up again and again: husbands vs. wives, mothers vs. daughters, teenagers vs. the world, anthropologists vs. subjects, dogs vs. humans — and that’s only in two houses side by side on Rutherford Road where the battles don’t rage on so much as threaten to implode. Margaret Downing must defend herself daily from her husband’s hostile neglect, hopelessly unsure of when — or whether — he will leave her; Bill Downing is under assault from a deadly ennui; Julia Downing is in pathological retreat from the malevolence of puberty and her mother’s exasperating affection; while next door, Dr. Clarice Watkins, a visiting sociocultural anthropologist collecting data for an ethnography of the town, outruns her own sorrows by watching, judging, and taking notes.
Littlefield, for Dr. Watkins, provides the perfect laboratory for her inquiry into the nature of happiness. So what if its residents are smug and self-satisfied? Should they be anything else, here in one of The Best Places to Live?
Leafy streets, old Victorian houses, fine public schools and a small university, and a pond in the middle of town, with a bathhouse and lifeguards in the summer. […] How did global destabilization, she wondered, register among what must be the world’s most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population?
As I write this, Twitter is exploding with a debate over how dogs would wear pants if dogs wore pants. This “story” has been picked up by most of the major news outlets, with The Atlantic weighing in, finally and decisively, late in the day and on the wrong side of the argument. News like this — or rather, the fact of this trifle being treated as news, even on a slow news day — is exactly the sort of thing Dr. Watkins probably thinks is wrong with the world in places like Littlefield. One resident actually runs a blog entitled “The Importance of Not Giving a Fuck about What’s Important.” The blogger may be a disaffected teenage stoner, but he’s tapped into the zeitgeist of Littlefield far more accurately, even, than Dr. Watkins. The fact is, nobody in Littlefield gives a fuck about what’s important on a global scale; they can’t seem to see much beyond their own navels. Late in the story, one neighbor informs another of Dr. Watkins’s impression of the residents:
[W]e think our little problems are big problems, and every time we try to pay attention to the truly bad things in the world we are really just congratulating ourselves that they aren’t happening to us.
But what of those “little” problems? Berne has a gift for navigating the subterranean currents coursing under the skin, and she shares the inner lives of her characters more generously than they — than we — often do with one another. That she pulls off a psychological scrutiny this diagnostic, smack-dab in the middle of a satirical novel, provides a certain kind of reader with the ultimate Satisfying Literary Experience; anyone who feels guilty enjoying the pleasures of light comedy can gratify herself that she’s actually consuming Real Literature here. Because Berne recognizes far more truth than Dr. Watkins does. No matter how many of her neighbors’ windows she peers into, how much she eavesdrops in the downtown diner, how many parties and civic events she attends and studies and records, Dr. Watkins gets it wrong — very wrong. As do wives about husbands, mothers about sons, diner customers about the man behind the counter, and on and on. Sure, the town is bursting with adulterers and racists and vandals — and that rogue poisoner — not to mention all those seemingly incompetent mental health-care professionals. Even so, no one — except perhaps that dog-murderer — is actually as bad as we all seem to think. Where Dr. Watkins sees a pedophile, for example, Berne reveals a man in need of a friendly conversation during a dark night of the soul.
Eventually, if only with the theoretical framework of her study, Dr. Watkins sees the error of her ways:
A peculiar wretchedness had begun to hound her […]. Why weren’t these people happier? She had counted on them to be happier. To be insular, complacent, self-absorbed. And they were — yet also restless, anguished. And strangely infatuated with the idea of menace.
As for her subjects themselves correcting course, they have a long way to go. And go they do, marching straight from their already troubled lives into various crises, which occur in humorous or heartbreaking — but always suspenseful and (mostly) believable — ways. If only these people could stop trying to protect themselves from all of life’s problems, they might be a whole lot safer. Self-absorption, it turns out, is an effective way to poison oneself from the inside; Bill Downing is proof enough of that. “Could I actually be dead, thought Bill, and not know it? […] Just how wrong about life was it possible to be?”
Because the people in the book are far more interesting than the eponymous beasts themselves (an authorial choice this Dog Person finds to be the novel’s only flaw) those of “the other persuasion” will find plenty to engage their sympathies. And their funny bones. Take the folks pleading their case, park-or-no-park, at that raucous town hall meeting. Though any one of them would be the Neighbor From Hell, for sheer entertainment value I’d consider a move to Littlefield. Whether an argument runs three pages or three sentences, each and every one issues from a person I’d call a character in the Dickensian sense of the word. Chief among these: A rabid environmental scientist who, after “exhaustive calculations” has determined the exact tonnage of “sewage” the village canines will deposit in the park each year (forgetting, it would seem, that when it comes to dogs, shit happens with or without a leash); a nose-ring sporting, spiky-haired activist passing out buttons proclaiming “Kids are for people who can’t have dogs;” Mrs. Beale, hot and bothered over how many people reach for those buttons, furiously loosening her Liberty scarf. Then there’s her estranged son-in-law, George, newly abandoned by her daughter, who finally produces a convincing argument on behalf of the dogs, not to mention some decent advice for all of us people.
Like humans, he said, dogs needed a chance once in a while to be free. The pursuit of happiness should be a dog’s right, too. […] That was what it was like to have a dog. They reminded you of the basic joy of being alive, which, God knows, was easy to forget.
Happiness being, of course, the whole point of living in a place like Littlefield. But the tendency of humans to chase happiness, like a dog after an invisible ball, is a cruel trick we play on ourselves. George, the novel’s resident novelist, knows this, and in one of the book’s best and funniest scenes — which pits him against an onslaught of inane questions at a local book club meeting — he goes head to head with Mrs. Beale over what is actually worth pursuing. She takes the first shot, baiting him with this critique of his oeuvre:
“[…] novelists are doing a bad job, in my opinion. It is lonely being a person. […] What we need in this world” — Mrs. Beale gave him a severe look […] — “are bravery and honor. Models of decency. Not more zombies and monsters and strange behavior.”
She wants novels that are nothing like life, in other words, while George spends his days “wondering, in general, how to make his novel less about baseball and zombies and more about the dark laboratory of the soul.”
The Dogs of Littlefield was originally published in Great Britain in 2013, a curious fact given the novel’s interest in that particularly American pastime of pursuing happiness. But of course Brits and Americans have many things in common. As Berne well knows — and proves — there are not two kinds of people in the world. There’s just you and me and everyone else, each of us flawed and yearning, half-blind to each other and ourselves, straining at the leash. Deep down we’re all beasts. Perhaps the best we can do — as George, and each of the Downings, and even Mrs. Beale eventually discover — is simply unclip ourselves from our illusions of having any power over our natures, and take happiness where we can find it.
“Listen to this one,” George tells Mrs. Beale,
“A man spends his goddamn life sitting in a goddamn chair trying to figure out the exact words for how a blade of grass looks in the morning, while everyone else is out there, doing things, because he loves the goddamn world so much he’d claw his eyes out to understand five minutes of it.” […] “But guess what? It’s not the world’s job to explain itself. Your job is just to sit there until something finally hits you in the face.” His voice had dropped lower, so that everyone leaned forward to hear him. “And maybe what hits you smells like roses or maybe it smells like dead fish, or maybe” — his voice sank to a snarl — “it smells like a werewolf’s asshole.”
When it comes to zombie lit or books about baseball, I’m of the other persuasion. But George had me at “a werewolf’s asshole” so I’d read anything the guy comes up with. Sadly, he’s not a real writer — but it’s our great fortune that Suzanne Berne is. Her storytelling — and her prose — has the taste of life in its jaws.
Sariah Dorbin’s short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review and the Bellevue Literary Review, and anthologized in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and works as a Creative Director for a Los Angeles advertising agency.