A collection of legends from the concrete canyons

The Choking Doberman, by Jan Harold Brunvand. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 240 pp. $13.95.

Although D. H. Lawrence admonished us to trust the teller and not the tale, in the case of the many '' 'new' urban legends'' in ''The Choking Doberman'' we should probably do neither, but simply enjoy.

Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist at the University of Utah who assembled this and an earlier collection of ''Americans' favorite false-true tales'' (''The Vanishing Hitchhiker''), explains why he classes urban legends as folklore:

''Urban legends, despite their contemporary sound, display the same characteristics as older verbal folklore. They pass from person to person by word of mouth, they are retained in group traditions, and they are inevitably found in different versions through time and space.''

And, says Brunvand, ''if an urban legend at first seems too recent to have achieved the status of folklore, further study often reveals its plots and themes to be decades or even centuries old.''

Old or new, false or true, it doesn't matter, since a story's primary purpose is to entertain, and that's precisely what the apocryphal tales in ''The Choking Doberman'' do.

The book's title story is typical. Brunvand reproduces a version (there are many) that appeared in Woman's World magazine in April 1982:

A weird thing happened to a woman at work. She got home one afternoon and her German Shepherd was in convulsions. So she rushed the dog to the vet, then raced home to get ready for a date. As she got back in the door, her phone rang. It was the vet, telling her that two human fingers had been lodged in her dog's throat. The police arrived and they all followed a bloody trail to her bedroom closet, where a young burglar huddled - moaning over his missing thumb and forefinger.

You'll notice that the dog is no longer a Doberman pinscher - the specifics of urban legends are subject to change - but this is the story in essence. Numerous other variations appear in Brunvand's first and title chapter.

And so it goes throughout ''The Choking Doberman''; tales and their permutations are recorded and commented on. Some are ghoulish, others angry, and a few are in questionable taste.

That these stories are part of America's cultural currency is undeniable, and they say, I'm sure, many things about the national psyche.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.