In the age old question of cats versus dogs, I definitely fall in the dog category. (This was true even before I developed a cat allergy.) I’ve spent my fair share of time around dogs in the past thirty years but I’m looking at them a little differently after reading Fifteen Dogs.
In the vein of Watership Down, André Alexis uses fiction to tell a story about dogs that is both realistic and fantastical. As a result of a bet between Hermes and Appolo (yes, the Greek gods hang out in Toronto taverns), fifteen dogs, staying over night in a veterinarian clinic, are given human intelligence. At the heart of the bet is the question of whether the dogs will be happier with this intelligence.
The dogs develop a unique language, even going so far as including poetry and words they’ve never had to think about before. What’s unique about this story is that even while the dogs are arguing about poetry, they remain completely doggish. They chase squirrels (although suddenly they find themselves pondering whether or not squirrels suffer). They sniff each other’s butts. They mount each other. It’s normal dog stuff that doesn’t bother me when I see dogs at the park doing it. And yet it becomes uncomfortable when attributed to a creature with equal intelligence to my own.
Equally uncomfortable is the way that the dogs often view the humans around them. While there are some close human-dog relationships, there’s none of the sentimentality found in most classic dog stories. These dogs aren’t going to go on any incredible journeys searching for their masters. Indeed, they often feel dominant to the humans that care for them. As it does for most of us, human intelligence gives these dogs a sense of their own individuality and independence.
All this discomfort certainly doesn’t make for a bad book. In fact, it’s where much of the book’s strength and uniqueness lies. I’ve read a lot of books about dogs but I’ve never read one like this. Alexis strikes a perfect balance between dog-ness and human-ness in these fifteen dog characters. Each one is unique, some more likeable than others, and we follow each through the course of its life. Some of those lives are longer and more storied than others.
Does intelligence steal happiness? Or does it open the door for a new and different kind of happiness? Alexis guides us skillfully through these questions – ones even the Greek gods can’t quite answer. They dip in and out of the lives of the dogs with the sort of involvement familiar to readers of The Iliad or The Odyssey. It’s an odd mixture of Zeus on Olympus and feral dogs in Toronto but Alexis makes it work and the result is a book quite unlike any other I’ve ever read.