A young man's dogged devotion

The search for a mutt's owner in Jerusalem turns dangerous and romantic

Beneath the dire headlines, good news from the Middle East: a delightful novel called "Someone to Run With," by David Grossman. The Israelis chose it for their most prestigious national prize and drove it up the bestseller list when it appeared in 2001. A year later, the Germans awarded it a prize of their own. And now, with this sprightly translation by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz, it's time for Americans to fall in love with it, too.

When the story opens, 16-year-old Assaf is enduring a mind-numbing summer job in Jerusalem's sanitation department. Called away to the United States to deal with a romantic emergency involving his older sister, his parents have left him alone for the first time. But Assaf is too good or too timid to see these weeks of freedom as anything but uninterrupted tedium. Until a dog barks.

"Sometimes," Grossman writes, "it is so easy to determine the exact moment when something - Assaf's life, for instance - starts to change, irreversibly, forever."

The arrival of this lost mutt is such a moment, and it sets in motion a search that will draw Assaf - and us - through a harrowing and wonderful adventure. Unable to find anything else for him to do, his boss tells Assaf, "Do what we always do in such cases. Tie a rope to the dog and let it walk for a while, an hour or two, and it will lead you itself, straight and steady, to its owner."

In the tradition of supervisors everywhere, this advice is only partly accurate. The dog leads him all right, but their itinerary isn't straight or steady, and there's no walking involved. This charmingly discombobulated boy is pulled all over town in a kind of Kafkaesque comedy that wags through one crisis after another.

Everywhere he goes, people recognize the dog and ask what he's doing with it. A street vendor hands him a pizza and yells at him for being late - for what? A cloistered nun tells him there isn't much time to save the dog's owner - from what? A policeman assaults and arrests him - but why? It's that nightmare in which everyone else understands what part you're playing but you. Even the dog seems to know, but beyond pulling him through the streets of Jerusalem with unwavering determination, it won't tell him either.

Gradually, though, Assaf collects enough clues to understand that the dog's owner is a young woman in horrible peril and that he's her only chance for salvation - and that he's in love with her. What, after all, could be more chivalric than devotion to someone you haven't met? Moving from one level of this mystery to the next, he starts to imagine himself as the knight in a favorite computer game, a conceit that reminds us how innocent and naive he is even as he descends into seedy sections of Jerusalem that he never knew existed.

Meanwhile, the narrative switches over to the dog's owner, a young woman named Tamar, who's on a dark adventure of her own. Grossman feeds us information about her slowly, but it's clear that she's left a dysfunctional family to save someone very dear to her. She shaves her head, flushes away her diary page by page, and starts singing on street corners. Like a secret agent using herself as bait, she's waiting to be drawn into Jerusalem's criminal underworld by a kind of Fagan of the street performers.

Grossman reportedly interviewed a number of runaways in preparation for writing this novel, and the result is a portrait of their cruel lives that's as rich as it is disturbing.

While Tamar and Assaf race through these twin searches, their respective pasts come into light, fleshing out the stories of two sensitive, lonely teens. Even before they meet, we're invested in their romance, convinced it must happen, determined to see them united.

A celebrated and sometimes controversial journalist, Grossman wears his politics lightly in this story, but the complexity of Israeli society reverberates under every page. Assaf remembers his family's anxiety during the first Iraq war. He's torn by Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. He's confused by his sister's decision to abandon them for America. Even the haunting fairy-tale scenes that give the book a touch of magical realism are stained with the agony of an idealistic nation forced to betray its principles.

But all of these profound issues remain where they should in this novel, knitted into the everyday concerns of a pensive young man who also worries about his complexion, negotiates the demands of selfish friends, and wonders if the owner of a lost dog could be the one for him. Politics aside, Grossman is more interested in capturing first love in all its surprising energy, a thrilling misimpression that you're experiencing something the world has never known before.

The age range for this book is unusually wide. Its American publisher is being careful not to position it as a young adult novel or even mention that it won a children's prize in Germany. (That label can be as damning as the "teacher of the year" award at a prestigious university - a sure sign you won't get tenure.) But it would be a shame not to alert high school teachers and librarians to this gem.

Grossman has such a tender ear for the whimpers of adolescent loneliness and such deep appreciation for youthful heroism. There's a boundless canine vitality to this book, guided by a philosopher's insight. Indeed, the searching questions that Tamar and Assaf ask themselves about their purpose in life and their responsibilities to others aren't childish or naive. Adults need to keep asking those questions, and young people need to be reassured that they're not asking them alone.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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