Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Published by Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26
When people talk about “fighting cancer,” that enemy is internal and often invisible. Guns and wrestling aren’t actually involved. But in Emerson College alum Steven Rowley’s debut novel, a gigantic tumor sitting on the eye of a small dachshund takes the form of an octopus, becoming a cheeky and repulsively present opponent.
Ted, a partnerless gay guy, worships his small companion, dachshund Lily, who happily “talks” in barking capital letters, plays card games and fills the love cup wonderfully. Anthropomorphizing Lily’s malady, Ted denies the octopus’s actual meaning while fighting a verbal and physical war against the beast. He also casts arrows of disdain at his therapist, who appears to be on the right path; Ted seems to need someone to punish for his sadness and fear.
Ted and Lily use inflatable plastic sharks to threaten the octopus—unsuccessfully. Later, when man and dog go to sea on a boat called Fishful Thinking, planning to violently pursue their enemy, a seemingly friendly man on a ship transforms into the octopus they’ve come to drown. But for all the metaphorical and magical nature of the story, Rowley manages to make it seem somehow realistic—in part because he also conveys the terror of the upcoming loss of a devoted loved one so well.
From Page 272: It’s clear now, the source of her distraction—she never responds to me when she senses red ball is near. My insides settle and I watch her play as life ambles toward normalcy. It is the perfect moment, a perfect marriage of stillness and life, of beauty and harmony, of aloneness and togetherness. Red ball glides smoothly across the deck of Fishful Thinking and Lily chases it with ease and I’ve never felt more calm.
But it doesn’t last.
Out of the corner of my eye I see fire in the sky, like a comet, coming toward us with increasing velocity.