The difference between dogs and men

Dan Rhodes’ first novel finally crosses the Atlantic, but are we ready?

by Gabriel Shapiro

Dogs are owned by men, and men are bludgeoned by fate.” This quote is not from “Timoleon Vieta Come Home,” though it is included at the beginning of the book. The line is from one of the legends of canine literature, “Lassie Come-Home,” Eric Knight’s serialized tales of a boy and his collie. Beyond the inclusion of this quote, there is little in common between “Timoleon Vieta” and anything like Lassie, Benji or the rest of that saccharine, anthropomorphic lot.

If the subtitle “A Sentimental Journey” seems cornball, it should. From the start, Rhodes’ sarcasm and acidic wit burns laughter out of the reader, like watching someone who doesn’t fully deserve it get slapped, and hard. Cockroft, Rhodes’ absolutely unheroic leading man, deserves a few slaps, and he’s been getting them. Life isn’t exactly hard for the old man, a disgraced, once semi-famous composer now well past his prime. He shuffles from messy fling to stultifying romance, usually drunk, always bitter, but reasonably comfortable.

Cockroft’s life has been interesting, if nothing else, and his stories, Rhodes’ stories, are told in unique style, disarming while repellant, hilarious and heartbreaking. There are few comparisons for these vignettes that frantically alternate between raising the spirits and dashing them on jagged cliffs. The splitting feeling in your side may be from the laughter, or Rhodes might be twisting the knife.

Timoleon Vieta is Cockroft’s dog, not because the old man purchased him as a puppy or rescued him from the pound, but because the dog had happened to show up at his deteriorating house. The old man, being a dog lover, was especially taken with this dog because of the mongrel’s beautiful eyes, so he invited the dog to stay, fed him and gave him a name.

The focus on Timoleon Vieta makes sense, as it becomes clear that he is the only creature Cockroft has trusted since everything fell apart. The novel builds its characters in waves, telling readers just enough to support the upcoming bits, then jumping off the next cliff as it comes. Cockroft was a man, he was an old man, he was a lonely old man, and so on in a long, deliberate rhythm. The book is presented in two halves, and those halves are chopped into small, quickly read chapters.

The first half is the novel-y part, as it flows from chapter to chapter and all of the characters are in each one, remaining in focus throughout. The second half finds Rhodes returning to his former style, the short story. Brief appearances by some character, usually the dog, are all that provide a thread leading to the tragicomic ending.

Rhodes won acclaim in the United Kingdom for his first two collections. The first, “Anthropology,” a collection of 101 stories, each told in 101 words, displayed Rhodes’ ability to cut straight to the heart of anything, stripping away the fluffy or overwrought layering. He left only a punch in the face, a stab in the heart or a bolt of love, like lightning on a clear day. Rhodes’ second collection “Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love” took its order to intentionally obscure that simultaneously least fair and fairest emotion seriously, and as a result is full of the strangest, most original stories about the oldest subject, love, ever written. Finally, “Timoleon Vieta Come Home” landed him on Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list, and he’s been modestly downplaying the honor ever since, going so far as to state that the book would be his last novel.

As critics stateside ponder what it is about Rhodes’ sensibilities that makes him come off as palpably European, they wonder aloud whether his style can fly in the States. With absolutely no need to wrap everything up neatly, not at all disposed to happy endings, and with no sense of justice for the weak, the good or the innocent, it sounds like many have found reasons to believe Rhodes just won’t take here the same way he did on his cloudy little island. That seems unlikely. The assumption that American audiences will be unable or unwilling to handle the brutality of Rhodes’ ultra-unsweetened view of life only highlights the critics’ slavish obeisance to the predictable, syrupy entertainment that clogs corporate bookstores and cinemas alike.

Rhodes isn’t telling us that life is ugly; he’s preying on the fact that we saw its ugliness before we picked up his slender book. He shows us the beauty that sparkles in the ugliness, like glints of sunlight reflecting off the tiny prisms of sand stuck to the ugliest, smelliest dead fish washed up on the beach. The momentary joys, the fleeting loves, the shocks of happiness that burst and fade, trampled by the difficulties and cruelties of life, each take their turn, and Rhodes tells them with equal skill and effortless detail, a mirror of life’s journey between the valley walls of joy and pain, stuck, with muddy feet, in the river in between.