A Book for Dog Days
I’ll admit it: I didn’t like Marley & Me, John Grogan’s blockbuster memoir about life with a destructive dog.
Sure, he has an ability to take a common topic—in this case, dog ownership—and squeeze out a laugh or two, but the book is no great work of art and does little to illuminate why we’re so attached to our pets. It certainly wouldn’t make me want to run out and get a dog.
For me, that book was Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two. Knapp was an exceptional journalist and essayist, and her writing dug into the roots of a neurosis that plagued her. By putting herself on display, she showed us much more about ourselves and the society that shapes us—whether she was writing about alcoholism (Drinking: A Love Story) or anorexia (Appetites: Why Women Want).
She also wrote about her dog, Lucille. First published in 1998, Pack of Two was ahead of the dogs-as-celebrity-accessory trend, even if Knapp did write about spoiled “nineties” dogs.
Like Knapp, I lived by myself. Like her, I had just gotten out of a relationship that I knew would never work. I was lonely. I needed a friend. I didn’t go to the shelter expecting to ?nd Lassie or my other half in the form of four legs and fur—just an animal to wag its tail when I walked in the door, and something to take the edge off of loneliness by being in my own pack of two. And while Emily—the Jack Russell Terrier who wound herself around my life—and I are less than perfect companions, she has changed me, hopefully for the better. Even when she tinkles on the carpet, yaps at a squirrel or nudges me while I work, she brings me a serenity I haven’t found anywhere else. Through life with Lucille, Knapp has an idea why.
“The personal voids that dominated my landscape when I ventured out to the shelter to ?nd Lucille are in many ways cultural voids as well, ones that have been blasted open by thirty years of social upheaval,” she wrote. “Loneliness. Transience. The breakdown of family and the search for alternative sources of support. The stresses of life in urban America, which is at once more crowded and more isolated. And, in the midst of that, 55 million pet dogs.” That number is now 74.8 million. Knapp was ahead of the curve.
The author died from complications of lung cancer in 2002, and Lucille was by her side. That, as I look at Emily curled up in my lap, doesn’t sound like a crazy notion at all.