Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bad Man, Good Dog

My dog, Buju, in 2010. Photo by Patrick Manning.

~Abandon hope all ye dog-haters who enter this post.~

Dogs have been an extraordinarily momentous force in the lives of humans since we lived in caves. As hunting partners, as lookouts, and as stoic companions, dogs have offered people throughout the ages a special brand of love and attention. As a result, dogs have found a their way into art and literature quite frequently.

In literature, it makes sense that dogs appear as friends (and much less frequently as adversaries) for the novelistic hero and antihero alike. The relationship between a dog and a person is almost universal; because dogs "speak" the same language anywhere, it is possible to translate the relationships characters have with dogs across practically any cultural boundary.

From Argos in Homer's Odyssey to Tock of The Phantom Tollbooth, dogs have been written as utterly loyal friends for their human counterparts, even when the journey proves to be harrowing. But what's more is that dogs will remain loyal to us even when we are wholly undeserving of a dog's silent, reassuring gaze.

Lost World by Patrícia Melo. 2009. 
Patrícia Melo, a contemporary Brazilian author, writes about a relationship between her antihero, Máiquel, and a street dog, amid darkness and violence in her book Lost World. A sequel to her wildly popular The Killer (a novel which has been adapted for the cinema as Man of the Year), the narrative of Lost World follows Máiquel's relentless and coldblooded footsteps as he searches for an ex-girlfriend and the pastor who took her under his wing, so that he can murder them both.

Máiquel's tragedy begins in the first book, The Killer, where he is manipulated by wealthy and corrupt personages of his neighborhood in São Paulo and turned into a contract killer, used to "clean up" the "crime" of the neighborhood's streets. Soon Máiquel goes from being an anonymous guy with a crappy job to a morally bankrupt murderer. In Lost World, Máiquel is a fugitive, a detective, and an impulsive killer attempting to recover the "lost world" of his life before he became a monster.

Along the way, Máiquel hits a dog with his car. The killer is stunned--he feels instant remorse and rushes to save the dog's life. He nurses the dog back to health and names him Tiger. Máiquel decides that the dog is really just an old hippie who took too much acid and turned himself into a dog, humanizing his canine friend.

Tiger silently and without judgement makes his master aware of the barbaric nature of the journey they're on, and that the likely outcomes of such a journey can only be darkness or death. Nevertheless, Tiger remains with the killer, the animal acting as the last thing on earth capable of humanizing Máiquel.

"Look here, you old hippie, I told Tiger, today you're going to suffer. You're going to walk a lot. You're going to get a lot of sun. You're going to see a lot of ugly things. But there's no choice. I can't leave you..."

There is an honesty and a certain tenderness in the way Máiquel relates to this once-stray dog (with whom he seems to have much in common). Tiger doesn't have to "save" his master, he simply needs accompany him, farting and vomiting everywhere they go. The dog's company is the last thread of love in the world to which Máiquel can cling.

Walkin the Dog by Walter Mosely. 1999.
Although Máiquel may consider himself too far gone for salvation, other "bad men" seek the company of feeble dogs on their road to restitution. In Walter Mosley's book Walkin the Dog, Socrates Fortlow is an ex-con living in the infamous Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He is constantly harassed by the law and criminals alike, tempting him to return to a violent life he wishes to be rid of after years in prison. He holds down a job at a supermarket and cares for a two-legged dog he's named Killer.

He saved the dog when its back legs were crushed, and the dog's presence in his dingy apartment gives Socrates a reason to go to work in the morning and return home every night. "When he got home Killer was so sick that he couldn't propel himself on his halter to greet his master. ... He took the dog back to the veterinarian who ... told him that he would have to put the dog in a hospital where he'd have to undergo an operation. Socrates had never heard of an animal being operated on but he trusted the doctor and cared more about that dog than he cared for most people."

So there are two literary examples of a "bad man" needing a good dog. And there are plenty more examples of this phenomenon available in novels from around the world. But--- why this combination? Why does it seem natural for sweet, fragile dogs to accompany world-worn, sometimes violent masters?

I proposed that dogs serve as witnesses to human activity. They watch us closely, with a steady, contemplative gaze, registering the range of our affections from love to hate. Without asking for protection, we give it to them, because we need someone to quietly behold our world and remember who we were in it.

Tiger and Killer don't "save" their masters, nor do they seem inclined to consciously do so. Their presence alone offers assurance that there is indeed someone present-- watching, recording, remembering their master, for better or worse.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London. 1903.
We come to think of dogs as completely dependent upon the gifts of their masters, but rarely is a dog depicted asking for protection, entertainment, or more than what it has been given during its life. Perhaps this is because we feel purpose in offering these creatures space in our lives, only expecting their gaze in return; we take comfort in our belief that if we did not pat their heads and dish out food, they would be as lost as we were without them.

Dogs are animals with aggressive instincts, a strong will to survive and a wild history. Though they are domesticated, they retain their own ways and their own world. They reflect our own inherent tension with the civilized, domesticated world... and there is always a small ember of desire, burning to return us to a life of instinct and the freedom of the wilderness. Buck, of Jack London's The Call of the Wild teaches us so much of these fettered (yet ever-present) longings to answer the "call."

Buck is the dog that reminds us how capable these animals are-- how little time it would take for them to take their lives back into their own paws and live free of the messy, self-serving whims of man.

When Buck understands the deep relationship he can have with his wild ancestors (wolves) and with man (Thorton), he does not choose one world or the other-- he is able to remain fully a part of both worlds, living fully for himself and fully for his companion--in life and death.

When a dog chooses to commit himself to witnessing a man's life, then, when he chooses to remain by the side of a "bad man," we can be all the more assured it is more for man's benefit than for the kibble the dog receives as payment.

The ears of a domestic dog will perk at sounds we cannot hear, perhaps turning in the direction of an intrinsic wildness we both long for, but only they can still hear. Their eyes record our adventures and gaze into our hearts as they silently accompany us, as sentries of our souls.

What do you think about bad men and their good dogs? Who are your favorite literary dogs?

Until next time, fair petticoat wearers--keep ruffling!

My dog, Buju. January 1, 2013. 


  1. easily, the first bad man, good dog book I read was Dr. Suess' "The Grinch who Stole Christmas"....the illustrations of the dog are great! He just aims to please!

  2. I highly recommend The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, filled with great stories and essays (and, of course, some splendid cartoons). It was just published recently.

    And there's an absolutely amazing story by Kij Johnson called "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" (published in the anthology The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, published in 2007). It's gorgeously written, and heartbreaking. One of my favorite stories ever.

    Thanks for this post -- and love to Buju!

  3. Jean- I love the little dog from the Grinch! He is a fine example of good dog/bad man :)

    Terri- Thank you so much for the recommendations-- they are in my amazon shopping cart now! I imagine it is very fun to write dogs as an author.. no?