The latest in an occasional Slateseries that surveys whether you should bother to read the books on the New York Times best-seller list.
Even in my old age, I remain ambivalent about dogs. This condition is perhaps explained by the first dog that I ever owned, a bushy, black Lhasa apso named Heidi, who, around the time I turned 5 years old, began growling every time I walked into the room. My father, a deeply compassionate man, ruminated for a few weeks before packing Heidi into the car and heading off to face the only humane solution: He released her in a local park and sprinted in the opposite direction.
Thus, I came to John Grogan’s Marley & Me, a memoir about a man and his dog, without much pro-dog sentiment. This makes me unusual, apparently—Grogan’s book has occupied the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks. Philadelphia magazine reports that Grogan’s HarperCollins sales reps have dubbed the book “Tuesdays With Marley”—the kind of treacle in which a middle-aged man looks to a companion (a wizened mentor or, in this case, an energetic Labrador) for clues to life’s Big Questions. This all makes Marley & Me sound rather dreary, but it’s not so. Slate enthusiastically recommends that you read at least half of this book.
Cynics who will not enjoy Marley & Me as literature will at least admire its ingenious packaging. Marley, a 97-pounder with dreamy brown eyes, is billed on the cover as the “world’s worst dog.” This judgment is entirely untrue. From the antics Grogan describes, Marley sounds no worse than any other dog that I’ve ever met. He tears up cushions, sofas, and door jambs. He plotzes during thunderstorms. He greets strangers by placing his front paws on their shoulders or steering his snout toward their private regions. When taken out in public, Marley makes a fuss over local poodles. One day, he swallows an 18-carat gold necklace belonging to Grogan’s wife, which Grogan is later obliged to excavate from one of Marley’s deposits in the back yard. And yet, despite this, Grogan professes his undying love for Marley, whose spiritual hold over the family resembles that of a “quirky but beloved uncle.”
What Grogan has divined from his particular experience is a universal (and comforting) observation. Dogs can do all sorts of rotten things, but it is impossible to stay mad at a dog for very long, and getting angry at one succeeds only in making the owner feel bad. (Every time Grogan snaps at Marley, the dog stares at him uncomprehendingly and that’s the end of it.) Grogan, in fact, seems to be seeking atonement for the book’s cover line. For every one of Marley’s bad acts, he spends an equal number of pages describing his fundamental decency—his tender way with infants, his watchfulness around strangers, even his heroism when his master is thrown to the ground during a lightning storm (this really happens). Thus, the world’s worst dog is also the world’s best dog—a paradox that will make perfect sense to dog-owners.
Another masterstroke: Marley is not really about dog-owning. It is about child-rearing, which is even more endearing. John’s wife suggests that the couple adopt Marley shortly after they marry, and her motive couldn’t be more transparent: Jenny wants children, and she sees Marley as a try-out child. Sure enough, Marley brings out the motherly affections in Jenny. “As the days unfolded I saw in my young wife a calm, gentle, nurturing side I had not known existed,” Grogan writes. When Marley chokes on a wad of cellophane, it is Jenny who heroically clears his throat. Grogan divines a Message from Marley: “Through his very helplessness, he was showing Jenny she could handle this maternal nurturing thing.” Within weeks, Jenny has quit birth control, and the couple sets about trying to get pregnant—their marathon lovemaking sessions interrupted, with grueling inevitability, by Marley himself.
A writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer,Grogan has the soul of a metro columnist: He knows just how much of his personal life he can exploit for journalism. (A great newspaper column, Grogan confides, is made of “mortar” and “building blocks.” Here the mortar is dog-loving, and the building blocks are every single event that occurred in the dog’s life.) A more ambitious writer might have tried to make Marley into a kind of patron saint of doggyhood. Grogan, who writes three columns a week for the Inquirer, knows such maudlin sentiments must be doled out skillfully, and Marley unfolds in short, fast-moving chapters. It also helps that Grogan is not without writerly talent. He’s quite good, for example, when describing Marley’s giddy aura: “His body would quiver, his head would bob from side to side, and his entire rear end would swing in a sort of spastic dance.”
You should not read every page of Marley & Me. You should stop at page 224, at the moment when Grogan announces that Marley has “moved quietly out of middle age and into retirement.” What follows is a grueling chronicle of doggy death, featuring such familiar favorites as accidents in the house, deafness, and the owner ruefully lifting the dog’s hind end so he can struggle to his feet. It’s like The Passion of the Marley. About the third time you witness Marley straining to make it up the stairs, his devotion to the Grogans competing with his arthritic joints, you will want to pack Marley & Me into the car and release it to a blissful life somewhere else.