I never would have thought it possible but I’ve actually become one of those people who shakes her head in disgust when she walks by a stack of dog-related memoirs.
Believe me, it’s not that I’m anti-dog. (Just ask my absurdly pampered mixed-breed.) And it’s not that I don’t like dog books. (I was reading and rereading Albert Payson Terhune decades before John Grogan thought to write a memoir about his dog.)
It’s just that there are way too many of them. So I have pretty much resolved to stop reading or recommending them.
Except for Bad Dog: A Love Story. Martin Kihn is just too talented – I still don’t know how a writer can be that laugh-out-loud funny while chronicling a major life crisis – and his story is just too good to miss. (And of course the soulful pictures of Hola, his lovely Bernese mountain dog, don’t hurt either.)
Kihn and Hola, it would seem, were a match made in heaven – although it took a while for that to become apparent.
Kihn and his wife Gloria were living in Manhattan, pursuing their careers with varying degrees of success – and trying to ignore his drinking problem – when they bought Hola. Gloria hoped for companionship, as she wasn't getting much from her husband. But the dog they picked turned out to be the problem puppy from Hades.
“I noticed one of the litter careening around like a nutcase, kicking newspaper out of the way, trying to chew a hole in the back wall, and doing a Mexican hat dance with her hind legs,” Kihn would later recall. “‘Gosh,’ I remember thinking, ‘what’s wrong with that one?’”
What was wrong, of course, was that they took her home.
Hola grew up to be a dog who was “naturally dominant,” incapable of feeling pain, and “as outgoing as Ethel Merman on Jolt.”
Instead of plugging up the holes in their marriage, her wild behavior became one more source of stress. When she attacked Gloria one day, Gloria decided she’d had enough of the whole scene. She packed her bags, leaving Kihn, now newly sober, alone with a seriously problematic canine.
Hola came within an inch of going to the pound that day but of course she didn’t. She had her resources – mainly “a big smile that she throws around town like a stack of religious pamphlets” – and Kihn simply could not let her go.
Instead, the two creatures began to help each other, the one learning how to live without alcohol and the other preparing to earn a Canine Good Citizen certificate (a process that “consists of ten tests that seem simple unless you’re unfortunate enough to have an actual dog.”)
All good dog stories, of course, are just barely disguised people stories and “Bad Dog” is no exception. Kihn begins the book with a C.S. Lewis quote (“To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin”) and that’s really what this book is about – how Kihn’s love for his dog becomes greater than his love for himself.
But if you’re imagining something treacly think again. Kihn prefers humor to sentiment and for the most part we feel his love rather than read about it.
He also has the good judgment to tell us just enough about both Hola’s CGC training and his sobriety to keep the story moving – but not so much as to drown us in either.
It is “impossible to maintain a conviction of universal despair for a significant length of time when you are in proximity to a Bernese mountain dog,” writes Kihn. It is this little-known law of zoology that keeps Kihn’s head above water as he obsessively trains his dog and desperately hopes to win his wife back.
“Humility is not thinking less of myself,” Kihn finally realizes. “It’s thinking of myself less.”
It’s a dog trainer who helps Kihn to have this epiphany. Hola, of course, gets there way before he does. But she forgives him and so will readers, who ultimately are left hoping that Gloria will do the same.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.