I can’t think of any other recent novel that shows the same Joseph Heller-like ability to express abiding pessimism with such irresistible comic zest – or that provides such a jolting reminder of the irreducible weirdness of a blameless adult life.”
— Daily Telegraph
Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him.
They weren’t even his dogs.
‘Just a few months, six maximum? Don’t worry about changing your lifestyle,’ his brother pleaded. ‘Take them out before you go to work and when you get home again in the evening. They’re great dogs and won’t trash your place. Honest, you’ll love them.’
James (typically, it had to be said) had understated the nature of the task. He never once mentioned the Byzantine quality of his dogs’ inner lives, the practical and spiritual difficulties of caring for other sentient beings, the intense and constant scrutiny to which Jonathan was now subject.
Jonathan very much wanted the dogs to be happy but it was turning out not to be as simple as walks and bones.
Sissy padded up beside him and sat at his feet, looking yearningly into his face as if searching for the key to her future. She emitted a soft whine, a pleading noise that might have meant anything – I’m hungry, I need more love, we’re bored here all day, please turn over the reins to your life so we can sort you out.
Jonathan stared. The reins to his life? Did his life even have reins? And if it did, would it be wise to turn them over to a dog?
He pointed at her bed.
‘Lie down,’ he said. ‘And stop confounding me with impossible philosophical options.’ Her back was to him now, as was Dante’s, their heads together. Awww, he might once have thought. But now he squinted at them, anxious. Were they plotting to take over his life? And if so, how?
He had to admit it was nice being greeted with enthusiasm when he came home from a hard day at the advertising coalface. Long walks took the place of going to the gym and the dogs’ ability to sleep calmed him, took the edge off work.
They were good-looking dogs, and people stopped him on the street to admire his fine taste in pets. At the beginning he’d demur, saying they belonged to his brother in Dubai, but after a while he just said, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Your dog is nice too,’ even when the other dog wasn’t, particularly.
But lately something had shifted in his relationship with them. He sensed they disapproved of his lifestyle.
Which was fair enough. He disapproved of it too.
Jonathan looked up and saw the critics at the door, waiting.
Walk time. At least he had a park. Most dog owners in New York had to walk miles to find one, or hire someone to transport their dogs to Central Park. It was one of the deciding factors for James.
‘You have a dog run practically across the street! How lucky is that?’
How lucky was it, mused Jonathan, though it was way too late to move now. He turned up the collar of his jacket, trudged the three blocks to Tompkins Square Park in the rain, unclipped the leashes and off they ran, skipping for joy, sniffing other dogs and snaffling up bits of discarded food. Jonathan pressed himself up against a tree for cover.He thought about work while the dogs played with their friends until he noticed that they’d stopped frolicking and were standing, staring at him damply. James always threw a ball for us, their expressions said. He played hide and seek and introduced us to other dogs.
Jonathan stared back at them. What? Now dogs needed introductions? Whatever happened to butt-sniffing?
‘Go sniff a butt,’ he said, waving in the direction of the teeming pack. ‘Make your own social life. Stand on your own four feet.’
An older man with a husky and a large blue golf umbrella turned to look at him. ‘You tell ’em,’ he said. ‘In my day we sniffed our own butts.’
The rain tapered off. Sissy trotted off towards a tea-cup version of a foreign dog who’d wandered in from the smalldog gulag. It was a fluffy gingery thing straight out of the Mattel factory. Next to the puffball, a Weimaraner with a long-suffering expression wore a padded rain-suit in pale pink and green paisley with matching boots and hood.
Why did people think dogs wanted to wear clothes? The Weimaraner’s owner glared at him and he wondered if he’d been thinking out loud again.
‘Nice dog,’ he said with a smile, but the woman turned away.
He caught Sissy’s eye. What kind of life was this for a dog? Maybe his dogs hated New York City, with its emphasis on labels, money and grooming. Maybe they wished they lived on a farm, where they could run and play and be useful. But surely the dogs and cats and rats and squirrels and birds and humans in New York all adjusted to life well enough?
They walked the streets, they ate great food, they were fine, Jonathan thought. Weren’t they?
His own life wasn’t bad.
Not long out of art school, a junior copywriter at Comrade, his own apartment and a not-unimpressive girlfriend by the name of Julie Cormorant. The dogs should admire him.
‘Come on,’ he called.
Sissy bounded up and Dante made a show of saying an elaborate farewell to the ginger fuzz ball before turning and trotting slowly back to his legal guardian. As Jonathan bent to clip on Sissy’s leash, the spaniel met his eyes with an expression of profound sympathy. Dante lifted his leg in the general direction of Jonathan’s foot.
‘Hey!’ Jonathan growled, and after an instant’s hesitation, the pack sloped off towards his apartment on the third floor. The heavens opened half a block from home and they arrived drenched.
For his first five weeks in New York, Jonathan lived on his best friend’s couch.
‘Are you kidding me?’ Max said, throwing a couple of cleanish sheets over the blue corduroy cushions. ‘I’d be mortally wounded if you stayed at the Four Seasons.’
‘I’ll pay you back someday.’
Max clapped his shoulder. ‘Non necessario, amigo. Mi casa es tu casa.’
‘Muchas castanets, pal.’
Max lived in Bed Stuy, in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with whichever gorgeous girlfriend he happened to be going around with at the moment. Jonathan didn’t mind the couch, which was comfortable enough, and Max was a perfect guide to first-time living in New York, with his intimate knowledge of every bar between Harlem and Canarsie,
not to mention a single-minded determination to get Jonathan a job at Comrade, his own place of employ.
‘Ten-thirty interview tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It’s all fixed with Ed. I’ve done the subliminal thing with him, muttering your name whenever we’re in the same room so he already thinks it’s God’s will to hire you.’
‘You really think he’ll do it? Don’t I need some kind of skills?’
‘Nah.’ Max flipped the cheese sandwich he was frying.
‘The hard part will be convincing him you’re a genius who’s temperamentally incapable of rocking the boat. Everything we do is blindingly obvious, dressed up with a mountain of marketing to look like time travel.’
Jonathan had resigned himself to weeks of answering ads online, interviewing for jobs that didn’t exist, accepting internships at start-ups whose USP was that they didn’t pay.
A bit of method acting had to be easier than that.
The next morning, he put on his best shirt, least faded jeans, got on the subway with Max and headed for Tribeca.
The interview was short. ‘Hey, Johnny!’ Ed greeted him with enthusiasm that extended to an affectionate hug, though it was his younger brother, Ben, that Max and Jonathan had been friends with at school. ‘How you been?
Great to see you. So Max says you’ll be an asset to the place. Will you?’
Still in pleasantry mode, Jonathan was taken aback.
‘Well,’ he began, looking nervously at the twenty or so openplan employees peering at him. He leaned in to Ed and whispered, ‘You mean, here?’
‘Yup. Let’s put on the show right here.’ Ed grinned maniacally. Max stood behind the boss nodding encouragement.
Jonathan cleared his throat. ‘Well, um, I pride myself on my skill at problem solving. I’ve always worked well with a team . . .’ Within seconds he realized he’d lost Ed’s interest and Max drew his finger across his throat.
OK, he thought. Lowering his voice half an octave, he began again. ‘I like to grab a problem by the jugular and squeeze the life out of it, go for the soft underbelly, reach inside the bastard and drag out its lungs.’ This seemed to win back Ed’s attention, though to be fair, the language wasn’t his. One of his freshman roommates hailed from a handgun and deer-murdering clan in Kentucky and talked almost exclusively in killing metaphors.
‘I figure I can learn a lot from you, Ed. You’ve always been my role model.’
Ed was a few years older than Jonathan and Max. Growing up, neither of them had much liked Ed and no one in their right mind admired him.
‘I’m not after my name in lights, or lots of money,’ Jonathan stated firmly. ‘It’s about opening up the thorax and grabbing hold of the balls, getting to the gist of what we stand for. That’s what makes me tick.’ Everything but the thorax was Max’s prompt; they’d rehearsed it last night. Jonathan barely knew what he was saying.
He began to feel slightly desperate. ‘Ed, hand on heart, there isn’t a job in New York City I’d rather have.’ He followed the track of Ed’s eyes to a dark-haired girl in a tight dress, waving a file at them.
‘Great, good, fine,’ Ed said, having forgotten what Jonathan was saying or why.
‘Um, will you let me know soon?’ Jonathan didn’t want to appear pushy, but he wasn’t entirely sure about another month on Max’s couch. There was no answer from Ed, who had turned, mesmerized, to follow the dark-haired girl back in the direction of his office.
Max materialized by his side. ‘Not a dry eye in the place, my friend. I’d say you’ve caught yourself a Great White.’
Max shrugged. ‘Call it woman’s intuition. Let’s go tell HR to draw you up a contract. We’ll strike while the candle’s hot. Ed won’t remember who you are tomorrow.’