WALKING THE DOG, by Elizabeth Swados. Feminist Press, 388 pp., $17.95 paper.
The publication of Elizabeth Swados’ funny, weird and engrossing novel, “Walking the Dog,” underlines the tragedy of her death at 64 in January due to complications following surgery for esophageal cancer.
After making her name with the Broadway musical “Runaways” in 1978 — it is being revived by New York York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center, July 6-9 — Swados went on to collaborate on a “Doonesbury” musical with Gary Trudeau, to compose music for film and television, to guest-star on soap operas and to publish an assortment of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s books. “My Depression: A Picture Book” reissued in 2014 gives a poignant look into the inner life of this Renaissance woman. With messy, scrawly illustrations and mordant handwritten text (think Roz Chast after a few shots of tequila), she brings uplifting black humor to her experience of the suffocating malaise that made both her mother and brother suicidal.
In “My Depression” she mentions writing a novel whose main character morphed from an ex-con from a wealthy background to an ex-junkie dog walker, then onto several other identities. “I wrote it in 8 days. No one will ever see it,” she writes.
Since “Walking the Dog” is about a former druggy enfant terrible who becomes a dog walker in New York City after serving 25 years of a life sentence, we can assume Swados spent at least a couple more days polishing up this novel of hers.
Here the dog walker is a middle-aged woman who goes by the name Carleen Kepper. Her name was changed from Ester Rosenthal back when she was a teenager being admitted to jail, because the warden thought her obviously Jewish name would cause her trouble. Ester was a child art prodigy who made the cover of The New York Times Magazine at the age of 12 and whose paintings still sell for more than $100,000. “I was compared a great deal to Mozart,” she explains in a 47-point “super-secret document” called “My Crimes List” that she prepares for her 11-year-old daughter, who has changed her name from Pony to Batya Shulamite.
How does someone who has been in jail for 25 years have an 11-year-old daughter? How, for that matter, does she get paroled? What about this life sentence . . . did she kill someone? The novel cleverly withholds the answers to these questions until the strangely lovable Carleen has totally sucked you in.
Carleen’s rapport with dogs and insight into the traits of various breeds is one of the ongoing pleasures of this book. Two Afghan hounds named Beyoncé and Aretha are “spectacular looking — a combination of couture runway models and George Lucas planetary hookers” but “sitting or lying down was so beyond them one would compare it to a dyslexic child taking a math SAT.” A giant bull mastiff named Doorbell is “170 pounds of pure ecstatic agitation.”
Carleen describes how she “fell down a full flight of stairs inside a loft building on Wooster Street. I was yanked by three Yorkies, each one no bigger than a spare rib.” She was on the way to deliver the “three hairbrush-like dogs” from an alcoholic lawyer to his ex-wife. Because the couple are no longer speaking, they communicate by tucking crude and hilarious notes into the dogs’ collars.
Interwoven with the story of Carleen’s life in New York and her attempt to develop a relationship with her Orthodox Jewish daughter is the story of her past — the many surreal, violent years in jail and the crime she committed while still in college that brought her there. Swados’ wild imagination keeps the revelations coming right up to the last page.
With “Walking the Dog,” this talented woman really went out on a high note.