The Book Club

The White Bone and Timbuktu

With Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, we find ourselves without a language by which dogs can live in literature. This is not the novelist’s fault–Auster’s, that is–but it is the novelist’s fate to end up, if he is not very careful, doing the opposite of speaking in prose–that is, writing in the impoverishment we now take for speech. And something–no, everything–is an artist’s responsibility no matter whose fault it is. God, the Devil, the French Parliament.

Our hero and point of view character, for example, Mr. Bones, is “a hodgepodge of genetic strains–part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel [kind not mentioned], part canine puzzle, and to make matters worse … No one was going to want to rescue him.”

Compare his muttness with that of one Blue about whom Jimmy Driftwood sang, “Redbone, blue tick, part coyote they say /He’s the fastest rabbit dog in Clark County today.” Blue is a hero. A noble dog. The materials of nobility are not available to Mr. Bones, but he and his master (who is dying when we meet him) are visionaries. One might call the landscapes and textures of their visions tawdry. Willy Christmas does his very best when he can to replace Santa Claus for the world, and though Auster does not say so, Mr. Bones, until his life is at stake, does his best to be a kind of doggie Santa Claus for Willy. He does this primarily with forbearance alone, as when Willy uses the money for their dinner on a small Santa Claus project and Mr. Bones gives every appearance of approving.

But Willy dies, in Mr. Bones’ vision at least, leaving Mr. Bones a vagrant who has no choice but to accept a name he detests, “Sparky,” though one of his benefactors improves matters by giving it to him a second time in a kind of homegrown Latin.

There is a great deal of language in this book. It is placed on the pages for its own sake, a fact that allows me to raise the issue of truth. I have failed in the last week to discover who first said in my hearing that it was not the job of art to be true of the world, as it is sometimes purportedly science’s job to. It is art’s job to be true to the world.

But what do we have here for truth? We have no fastest rabbit dogs. But we do have a dog who has visions. And what does Mr. Bones’ vision lead him to do? It is, literally, to drag his ailing self up a horridly difficult hill and down again in order to–what else?–play in the traffic. Playing to win, because a dog is a true sporting animal, but playing to win knowing that to lose will be his greatest win, for that is the way he will reach Willy in Timbuktu.

But come awake! It is not a question about Mr. Bones’ truth here brought before us. Dogs can’t read. So it is, for example, my truth being appealed to. And unless someone can convince me otherwise, there is not nearly enough in the way of high art–it would have to be a high, piercing art–to lift my vision of Mr. Bones with his burrs and bloodshot woe into a dancer in six lanes of traffic, playing for truth in a way that only a handful of human poets and painters and sculptors and writers even dare to consider.

Auster does give us a sentence or two at the end that could found a visionary truth about dogs, even though it is not true of all of them. He writes: “… in his book there was more to canine happiness than just feeling wanted. You also had to feel necessary.” With the word canine eliminated, and with mere feeling replaced by being, I would follow Auster where I think he wants to go. His sporting attempt to lift a street dog to the sublime slips, but it breaks new ground.

As for the elephants in The White Bone, things are at once in a different galaxy, and yet in the familiar one bequeathed by a culture that cannot see animals or people with admiration unadulterated by pity. Gowdy, however, has the great advantage of being a poet favored by the language. More on Gowdy anon.

Vicki Hearne