Gone to the Dogs

A witty novel’s canine crisis reveals the rifts in an idyllic Boston ’burb.

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The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Published by Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $25

The dogs in this novel are sinisterly obstreperous, expressing the outer battles and inner torments of their owners in the supposedly ideal Massachusetts town of Littlefield. Though dubbed one of the best places to live in America, the fictional town becomes fiercely divided over a proposal for an off-leash park; soon several dogs are found poisoned. That’s hardly the only strife in suburbia, as evidenced by Margaret and Bill’s mutually lonely marriage. George, a malcontent novelist separated from his wife, connects with Margaret over the town’s canine concerns, and an ambiguous mini-affair ensues. Berne subtly captures the shadows of their connection, making us wonder if love is ever possible, even in an affair. Margaret’s daughter Julia has troubles of her own, floating through an adolescence darkened by sorrow and near-hallucinations, treading onto real and symbolic thin ice.

Meanwhile, a mysterious turbaned woman named Clarice Watkins is secretly conducting sociological research on Littlefield, and her oh-so-academic reports on this town full of therapists and yoga teachers are archly conveyed. So are the musings of the alienated, joint-smoking Matthew, the teenage son of one of those many psychologists, whose cynical blog is aptly titled “The Importance of Not Giving a Fuck About What’s Important.” Berne, who teaches creative writing at Boston College, offers poignant moments, as in descriptions of Julia’s identity feeling smashed into smithereens by bullying at school. And yet, the book has a humorous perspective, as if Berne were also the sociologist wryly looking in.

From page 82: But his face was visible to Dr. Watkins as she approached in the darkness—and on it she perceived a look of such monstrous suffering, as if it were not a man who stood there but something that had consumed the man and now occupied his body. A look of wooden self-consciousness, fraudulence, vacancy, a kind of flat-line anguish that was almost frightening.

 


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