Friday, March 25, 2011

The Dog-niscient Narrator

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein (New York: Harper, 2009)

Imagine your story told from the point of view of someone who loves you unconditionally, who witnesses your public and private moments, your successes and sorrows, who always believes the very best of you and thinks you the center of the universe. Who gives you complete and undivided attention when you are near the treat container. And who knows the intricacies of racing Ferraris.
This is the premise of Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, a novel narrated from the viewpoint of "Enzo," the lab and terrier and something mix-of-a-dog who tells the story of his human Denny.  That human has drawn Enzo, named after the founder of the Ferrari line, into the intricacies of auto racing, and into the rough uncharted track of human relationships. There is lust and love--Denny and Eve. Birth and delight--Zoe. And neglect, illness, stuffed toys, death, sex crimes, BMW's, lawyers and in-laws. Possibly redemption and the winner's circle. All this is held together by two literary devices.
The first is the nearly all-seeing, all-smelling dog's viewpoint, a more sympathetic version of the "fly-on-the-wall" technique. Enzo perceives through a moral, emotional filter, but with a few significant exceptions, cannot much interfere with the human plot entanglements. The second is the zen of motorcar racing applied to the emotional stew of life, to mix metaphors. Some of the advice is gnomic--"that which you manifest will come before you"--and other seemingly pragmatic--a car is only as good as its tires. The racing lore matters less when the track is perfect and other drivers slow and well-behaved, and far more when conditions become treacherous, when other drivers spin out of control, when the track itself is badly planned.
The Random Animal is not much for speed--case in point, this novel has been out for a few years. But the racing information was handled with dexterity, and dog-narrator Enzo's view on a number of things were amusingly skewed by a perspective that didn't care how culture critics rank TV shows like The Rockford Files and Colombo with that odd-duck actor Peter Falk. Sometimes the dog-niscient view bolstered by a racing obsession that at first seemed overdone, but what obsession is underdone?
The canine-racing viewpoint did not venture much into the character of dog-life in contemporary society except for some glimpses of a heartless puppy mill owner and discussion of hip dysplasia and animals in pain. In a few cases, the canine-savant acts very much like a puppy, as in this passage when a friend takes Enzo in at a time of family despair and asks the dog to retrieve his own "puppy" from under the sofa: "'Where's your dog?' I didn't want to admit that I still slept with a stuffed animal but I did. I loved that dog, and Denny was right, I did hide it during the day because I didn't want Zoe to assimilate it into her collection and also because when people saw it they wanted to play tug and I didn't like tugging with my dog. And also, I was afraid of the virus that had possessed the zebra."
You'll have to read the book to learn more about Evil Zebra. And Racing in the Rain is often a delightful, but emotionally taut read.  I had and keep some hesitation about the gimmicky dog-niscience, but it allowed a story that could have been a dreary soap-opera to keep an innocence and optimism. There's nothing like a dog's eager hopefulness and a bright red Ferrari.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Monkeys on the Brain

Yes, for a nominal fee, this monkey will dance on your head! Sometimes even more happens, but that may fall in the TMI category.
I was lucky enough to be in Central America on "business" and participated in a few "eco-tours." The word "eco" is often used loosely to mean something done outdoors, involving contact with water, rock, or animal. An ideal eco-tour, I guess, would be one that created a small carbon footprint with proceeds going to the protection of  indigenous species. What I saw was in between beach shops catering to a drunken spring break crowd and a less penetrable rain forest grown over Mayan ruins. The jungle-park excursion kept some jungle protected, I assume, and provided income for some people. (Not much, apparently, from the look of nearby dwellings.) The animals were tamed (somewhat) examples of what lived beyond the park. Probably better for tourists to encounter a few tamed examples than to disturb wild populations. And it is probably better to keep a few capuchins about for display rather than selling them as pets or meat. On another excursion, untamed howler monkeys made their statement and briefly appeared in the trees. Another appeared hanging over a river.
It is exciting, and a relief, to see wild animals still in their habitat. It is difficult to gauge, though, the extent of long term environmental protection in countries where human habitation often seems on a poor grounding.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

At Sea

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea / in a beautiful pea green boat.”
I’m at sea and have seen neither an owl nor a pussycat. The boat, ship rather, is the color ships are wont to be—white with a beautiful sea blue trim.
I’m not exactly on an eco tour, but there are opportunities for nature encounters. One occurred with sting rays that could seem as affectionate as the owl and pussycat. It was in the shallows of the Cayman Islands, where virtual banks float in tax-free waters. In the deep deep seas, the water is royal blue. In the white sand shallows, where the rays, linger, it modulates to translucent jade.
There people—retirees, teenagers, couples—mingle with sting rays who brush by their guests. For over 30 years, the rays have been fed tidbits that that escaped the anti pasta tray to become sashimi for sea life. Under the influence of wildlife biologists, I remain suspicious of feeding wild animals, of encouraging a dependence on wet-suited adventurers. Or maybe it’s co-dependence. Those in the water thrilled at being brushed by water wings. In the name of research, I joined them. In the rough seas, I had trouble balancing on the shifting sands—treading water would have kicked up too much sand. Others around me would hold baby squid just under the stingray so the animal could hoover it in. I tried, with my thumb tucked in as directed, but the ray still got a sample of finger—leaving a nip mark that in a few hours disappeared from view, like the ocean floor.
The stinger attached to the top of the tail can cause serious harm, but as long as you don’t lunge for eyes or spine, the rays are content to flutter by, held in orbit by the floating bait bucket.
“They’re like puppies,” someone said. Eager for attention, amenable to being stroked. But puppies they aren’t.  Maybe the rays’ tolerance and seeming good nature argues for keeping lovely and clear their pea green home.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cougars, Bison, and Cows

The Random Animal has been sucked into the vortex of work deadlines. Do non-human animals have deadlines? There are biological imperatives: breed now, eat now, hibernate now. I suppose if a deer doesn't make it from the cornfield to the woods before a hunter shoots, she's literally met a deadline.
A more serious deadline has been encountered by the Eastern cougar, now considered extinct, as reported by The Huffinton Post. Bison, however, have returned in large enough numbers to the Plains and the West that they can be hunted again by Native American Tribes . (Some animal advocates are against all hunting, while others support hunting that is "traditional" and considered part of an indigenous group's regular sustenance. For others, like the environmentalist Aldo Leopold, hunting should suit ecological balance: all positions can seem logical--or a strange game of hair splitting with fungible categories.)
And the family farm remains endangered. But a relative sent me a link about dairy farms in Maine, much like the one I grew up on. Farmers in Washington County, according to the New York Times are trying to control their own destinies and tap into the locavore movement. It is not an easy life; these people have dedication to pursue their dream of a successful MOO coop. A video shows some stark winter scenes in Maine dairy country. I remember the thick coats of cows allowed to go outside. A gentle storm would blanket them, and they seemed reluctant to move, for then the blanket would fall to the ground.
I once saw a bison in winter. That enormous head swivels back and forth in the snow, sweeping it to the sides. All for the crispy-cold grasses beneath.