Sigrid Nunez’s seventh novel, “The Friend,” is about a woman and a dog, but is it a dog book? Its unnamed narrator is certainly not a dog person, at least when we first meet her. It’s “this devotion to humans, so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it,” she explains, “that has made me prefer cats. Give me a pet that can get along without me.”
In addition to her disdain for dogs, she lives in a 500-square-foot apartment in a Manhattan building that does not allow them. Thus, when asked by a friend’s widow to adopt his 180-pound Great Dane, her answer is no. But the widow, who wants the dog even less than Nunez’s narrator does, is a master of emotional jiujitsu. The dog has been in a kennel ever since the suicide, she explains, because if she brings him home he’ll spend the rest of his life waiting by the door. He “deserves better than that, don’t you think?” she asks.
Yes, he does, thinks the narrator, her “heart breaking” — and she takes the dog home, assuring her building super it is only temporary.
When she first gets him home, Apollo — the dog is the only named character in the book — is in such deep mourning that he ignores his new owner, but it is exactly the quality of his misery that breaks through her defenses. “They don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken,” she realizes.
The narrator, too, is stunned by grief. The dead man was her lifelong writing mentor, and their intense friendship persisted through each of his three marriages and various other liaisons. “The Friend” is her attempt to write her way through mourning; it has very little plot and reads as if it could be the author’s journal. Who knows, maybe it is — in the book, the possibility that this is a true story, altered only slightly, is tossed out. “I unnamed everyone,” she says, also suggesting that she changed a miniature dachshund to a Great Dane. But this, too, could be a fictional layer. One of Nunez’s other books is “Sempre Susan,” a memoir of Susan Sontag, whose son she dated, and there are parallels between this dead writer and that one.
“It’s curious how the act of writing leads to confession,” remarks the narrator. “Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.” Which of course confuses the issue even further.
As much as this book is about dogs and grief, it is also about writing and writers. Advice and commentary on the writing life from Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Bishop, Martin Amis, James Patterson and many others is presented. On the specific question of whether writing can help with the grieving process, she puts Natalia Ginzburg (no) up against Isak Dinesen (yes.) A major turning point in her evolution as a dog person happens when she begins reading aloud to the dog; he seems to prefer this to listening to music. “There was a time when it would have been clearer to me,” she muses, “whether reading Rilke’s letters to a young poet to a dog was a sign of mental imbalance.”
Those days are clearly over — now her main issue is how to get around her building’s pooch prohibition. She’s determined. “Miracle or no miracle, whatever happens, nothing is going to separate us.”
It’s more elegant and intellectual than warm and fuzzy, but in the end, it’s a dog book, after all.
THREE NOVELS FOR DOG PEOPLE
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, by Garth Stein. Told in the voice of the dog, who watches his owner, an auto mechanic and race car driver, love and lose and love again. Non-dog people may turn up their noses, but three woofs from the faithful. (Harper, $14.99 paper)
THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, by David Wroblewski. The story of a family that raises a gifted breed of dog, and their son, Edgar, who is mute. Everything’s fine until Uncle Claude shows up at the farm. This is a retelling of “Hamlet,” so tragedy is on the way. (Harper, $16.99 paper)
LILY AND THE OCTOPUS, by Steven Rowley. A lonely gay screenwriter in Los Angeles and his aging dachshund in a magical realist tale of interspecies love and loss. Only E.B. White has as brilliantly evoked the character of this breed. (S&S, $16 paper)— MARION WINIK