Intriguing portrait of life
Our reviewer admires a cross between a comedy of manners and a whodunnit.
The Dogs of Littlefield Author: Suzanne Berne Publisher: Fig Tree, 288 pages
LITTLEFIELD is a lovely place to live, especially if you like being part of a soccer carpool or book group, or knowing the names of your neighbours, or strolling down the road to get a cup of coffee in the Forge Cafe – a bit more of a hit-and-miss affair than the Starbucks opposite, but with its own hand-cut doughnuts and wicker basket filled with plastic daisies.
In fact, the compact Massachusetts town is, according to a (fictional) list in the Wall Street Journal, the sixth best place to live in America, which is precisely what has attracted the scrutiny of sociologist Clarice Watkins. Dr Watkins, whose previous work on “the effects of global destabilisation on urban matriarchal structures” based on fieldwork in inner-city Detroit and Mexico City has been much admired, has decided her next study should be into the far more mysterious business of equilibrium. What, in other words, do the contented find to talk about?
But Dr Watkins’ project is somewhat scuppered before it begins, because Littlefield has come under what one resident, George Wechsler, calls “a domestic fear campaign”; he might be forgiven the slight grandiosity given that its first target was his bull mastiff, Feldman, whose poisoned body, “almost too big to be believable”, has just been found in meadows adjacent to a local park.
Unlucky for Feldman, but also for his discoverer, Margaret Downing, a woman so attuned to potential catastrophe that she often sets off to buy milk with the words, “Well, wish me luck.” Margaret, who provides the novel with its primary point of view, is contending not only with her natural melancholy but with her husband Bill’s sudden detachment from their marriage. A canine corpse is not really what she needs.
Dog deaths continue, grotesque, menacing and unexplained. Is the pooch-poisoner simply a mistaken do-gooder, trying to free the community from troublesome coyotes but catching beloved pets in the crossfire?
Is he or she enraged by proposals for a new dog park, which contentiously seeks to formalise dog-walking practices that have existed without causing commotion for years?
Or is there a more sinister threat afoot to Littlefield’s dog-owners and their companions – to Emily (Boris the old English sheepdog), Naomi (Skittles the labradoodle), Sharon (Lucky the basset hound) et al?
The scene is set for a cross between a comedy of manners and a whodunnit, and there are elements of both in Berne’s tale of suburban shenanigans; as the author of the Orange prize-winning A Crime In The Neighbourhood, she has a track record for this kind of nuanced, darkened but thoroughly enjoyable small-canvas writing.
There are excellent set-pieces including a raucous town hall meeting (“Do dogs pay taxes?”) and a horribly claustrophobic and disastrous Christmas dinner, complete with ersatz mashed potato and a ham decorated with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, “as if it were covered in tiny archery targets”.
There is gossip, much of it centring on Wechsler, who is a recently separated novelist: “Last week Naomi had spotted him in Starbucks with his arm around a blonde in biking shorts and a white Spandex top with no bra.” There is even a seductive graduate student named Willa Clamage (it rhymes with damage).
Much is also made of Littlefield’s egregiously welcoming attitude towards the outsider Dr Watkins, who is first described as “a small fat black woman in an orange turban” and later as looking like a fortune-teller who may even be a friend of the Obamas.
She is invited to a Celebrate Your Heritage Day and prevailed upon to bring some examples of her favourite “tribal cuisine”. Meanwhile, Margaret dutifully instructs her teenage daughter to use the phrase “person of colour”. “But who says that?” retorts Julia. “Who says: ‘Hey, guess what, today I met a person of colour’?”
Dr Watkins herself is both fascinated and mildly repelled by Littlefield; she is also prone to writing summary sketches that, even allowing for academic jargon, seem harshly reductive of her objects of study. At the same time, despite knowing her profession, the town’s residents continue unaware, and perhaps wilfully so, that she may be looking in their direction.
Would their lives ever seem worthy of examination to them? Or would they simply feel that they are human beings trying to get by in an increasingly unstable world, where even a magazine listing doesn’t inure your blissful surroundings to divorce, disease, depression?
The dogs of Littlefield do, eventually, stop keeling over; the fraught apprehension and the appalling mystery lifts. Temporary inhabitants move on; people die; children grow up.
Meanwhile, Berne has created an intriguing portrait of the kind of loneliness that can only exist in a crowd, and given the lie to all those surveys that suggest a place or its community can be summed up by its house prices, crime statistics and performance indicators. – Guardian News & Media