'The Dogs of Littlefield' is one of the funniest new books of the year
A paradisal suburb is set on its ear by a proposed dog park, with acerbic laughter as a result.
For a novel that has no plot to speak of and simply ends rather than finishing up, Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield is wonderfully entertaining and is, in fact, the funniest (new) book I have read in some time. It is set in Littlefield, a fictional suburb of Boston, a villagey place possessed of all the good things in life, most especially yoga studios, therapists, and, of course, dogs. But what’s this? Its residents are not as happy as they should be in such ideal circumstances: They are beset by loveless marriages, adultery, underachieving and uncommunicative children, job insecurity, unfulfilled ambitions, depression, and existential despair. In other words, Littlefield suffers the familiar ills of suburbs in American literature. What makes it worthy of note, however, is its creator’s gift for tightly controlled, acerbic comedy.
As has so often been the case in matters of proposed civic improvement, the town has been riven by righteous acrimony over a petition put before the Board of Aldermen, in this case one proposing a dedicated off-leash dog park. Two factions materialize, and anonymous handwritten signs of increasing vehemence begin to appear: “Leash Your Beast Or Else” is only one. This is followed by a spate of dog poisonings. Are they related to the dog park controversy? Or could it be the nefarious work of the dark, bearded, decidedly foreign young man who works in the bakery? It is against this backdrop of menace and suspicion that we are privileged to contemplate the lives of select Littlefieldians.
We are not the only ones taking an objective view of the little burg and its people. Littlefield has attracted the interest of a “sociocultural anthropologist,” Clarice Watkins. Looking for a new subject and coming across The Wall Street Journal‘s list of “Twenty Best Places to Live in America,” she decides that Littlefield, coming in at number six for its “quality of life,” “natural beauty,” good schools, safety, and all the rest of it, is ideal. After all, people in her field are stuck on studying wretched places and suffering people; no one is studying communities like Littlefield. “How,” she wonders in her scholarly way, “did global destabilization ... register among what must be the world’s most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population?” Keeping her path-breaking project to herself, Watkins is soon integrated into the community, providing one of the book’s viewpoints. Along the way, we are made privy to her analysis and conclusions, which, saturated with “sociocultural” preconceptions, are often comically askew. In fact, Berne’s nimble handling of individual perspectives, so necessarily restricted and fallible, is one of the novel’s great treats.
The story’s linchpin is provided by Margaret Downing, around whose sorry life most events revolve. Once an aspiring musician, she is now a stay-at-home wife and the mother of Julia, a sulky adolescent firm in her “conviction that anything her mother requested somehow violated her most vital liberties.” Margaret is lonely, anxious, and unfulfilled – not least in her marriage to Bill, who has lost all feeling for life and just doesn’t love her, or much of anything, anymore. It is Margaret’s further misfortune that it is she who comes across the body of the first poisoned dog, a huge white bullmastiff belonging to George Wechsler. He is a former high school English teacher and, now, an unsuccessful novelist whose only published book is about “a blind yeshiva student in Brooklyn who dreams of being the Yankees’ designated hitter and spends every weekend in a batting cage teaching himself to hear the difference between a ball and a strike coming over the plate.” His wife has recently left him for a massage therapist, and I don’t think I give too much away when I reveal that all this bereftness gives rise to an affair between Margaret and George – nor that their first coupling is pretty much the damp squib one might expect:
"Afterward they lay for a time, side by side, looking at the shifting leaf patterns thrown by sunlight on his bedroom wall, sharing a kind of collegial relief that their ordeal was over, as if they had delivered a joint lecture that was received with indifference and then had retired to a campus bar."
Other characters adding their own portion of discontent and delusion are Marv and Hedy “Dr Doom” Fischman, retired psychoanalysts; Naomi and Stan Melman, psychologists, and their children, the nubile Hannah and stoner Matthew. Observing the unlovely Matthew with dejection, Margaret mentally fills in a future for him, one of addiction, theft, venereal disease, and residence in a squalid room smelling of cigarette butts, “weeping on a filthy mattress.” Also popping up is George’s wife, Tina, now living with her mother, Mrs. Beale, a force in the anti-dog park movement.
There are other characters, all deftly put before us in their self -absorption and occasional pain, but we’ll leave it at that, except to mention the on-and-off presence of some phantom dogs, spotted first by Margaret and later by her daughter. It is not clear to me what they are doing here except as projections of unhappiness – or something. I found it didn’t really matter; nor, I’m afraid, did it matter to me that there is so much unhappiness in this American paradise. I was here for Berne’s wit and comic genius and will leave you with one marvelous instance in which she gives us Clarice’s notes after listening to Naomi over a glass (or two) of wine. Naomi is unburdening herself, as it might be said, in a self-regarding, Schadenfreude-fueled recitativo of her neighbors’ misfortunes:
"Poor Margaret especially. A lovely woman, but an absolute wreck.... Now she thinks she’s seeing things. One minute she’s looking at a bush, the next it’s a dog. Well, no surprise, given the monster she had right in her house. That’s what I told her. I said, Margaret, you are projecting, and it may even be helpful, a defense mechanism, given all your stress. Because the woman is barely functioning. Marriage on life support. She’s been having an affair, which I’m sure you’ve already guessed, so this isn’t news: George Wechsler. I know. I don’t see it either. Anyway, Bill’s firm shut down, the poor man is out of work and on antidepressants. About time, frankly. I suggested that months ago."
– Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.