The Dog

by Joseph O’Neill, Pan­theon Books, 240 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

The un­named pro­tag­o­nist of Joseph O’Neill’s The

Dog, an ex­pat in Dubai, is the kind of guy who brings a copy of Phi­lan­thropy mag­a­zine to a cof­fee meet­ing in the Mall of the Emi­rates. “It must be con­fessed, I was hop­ing the pub­li­ca­tion would make me look good,” he ad­mits. He’s the kind of guy, in other words, with an aware­ness of how he is per­ceived, by oth­ers and per­haps by read­ers of his story — which may in­flu­ence his pref­er­ence for stand­ing on higher ground.

And yet he is a phi­lan­thropist and a do-gooder. He do­nates more than a third of his salary to char­ity, and as part of his role as “of­fi­cer” for the wealthy Le­banese Ba­tros fam­ily — a job he takes after a bit­ter breakup with one of his New York law-firm col­leagues — he pro­motes the cre­ation of a foun­da­tion that do­nates to med­i­cal clin­ics in Africa. “When I ques­tion the worth of my life, it com­forts me to think that, but for my in­stru­men­tal­ity in this mat­ter, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of hu­mans would likely be liv­ing less healthy, less happy, less worth­while lives. One might say that this un­fore­seen good con­tains noth­ing less than the hid­den mean­ing of my move to Dubai.”

One could as eas­ily say that the un­fore­seen good — or bad, or good/bad mo­tives with good/ bad out­comes — forms part of the mean­ing of The Dog. X, as he will here­after be known (we do know the first let­ter of his name), ob­sesses over the ethics of his and oth­ers’ ac­tions. For in­stance, one of his rules is “It is wrong to Google a per­son who does not want to be Googled by you.” He grap­ples with whether to write on a div­ing com­pan­ion’s Face­book wall, to de­fend the man against ma­li­cious posts and save him­self from “cul­pa­ble help­less­ness.” Even his oc­ca­sional nightly for­ays for sex are, as he sees it, morally jus­ti­fi­able: “a John can do good” by pay­ing and treat­ing his com­pan­ion well.

The trou­ble is, X does Google peo­ple, and he doesn’t post any­thing on his div­ing com­pan­ion’s wall. Fur­ther­more, he doesn’t con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that pay­ing his night­time com­pan­ions through a third party might not be en­tirely to their ben­e­fit. If the road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions, X is in an aim­less pur­ga­tory that has the un­bear­able heat of a lower realm. It is fit­ting that The Dog is set in a place of never-quite-fin­ished high-rises, aban­doned lux­ury cars, a be­fud­dling le­gal sys­tem, and soar­ing tem­per­a­tures.

X’s work oc­cu­pies much of his at­ten­tion. He gets a job in Dubai after run­ning into a col­lege friend, Ed­die Ba­tros, in New York; in his ea­ger­ness to es­cape the city where his mem­o­ries and his ex dwell, he de­camps for the “abra­cadabrapo­lis” of mirage-rich Dubai. Once X is in his po­si­tion work­ing for the Ba­tros fam­ily, he spends his time com­pos­ing bit­ter “men­tal mail” di­rected at his ab­sent em­ploy­ers and draft­ing dis­claimers to avoid any per­sonal li­a­bil­ity for the ac­tions he takes. He over­sees an in­tern, Alain Ba­tros, Ed­die’s chubby teenage nephew, whose al­lowance is de­pen­dent on his weight-loss suc­cesses. X re­fuses to as­sume the bur­den of wear­ing “some un­war­ranted care­tak­ing hat” — he is not re­spon­si­ble for Alain, he clar­i­fies, reit­er­at­ing his con­fused stance to­ward the well­be­ing of oth­ers. (Alain is any­thing but a tragic fig­ure, how­ever. His at­tempt to ex­tort a bi­doon, a state­less in­di­vid­ual who is usu­ally de­scended from for­eign­ers, is telling of his so­ci­ety’s moral in­con­gruities.)

In his spare time, X oc­ca­sion­ally goes off­shore div­ing, in­dulges in pedi­cures, and meets with friends. A rare mo­ment of ac­tion oc­curs when an ac­quain­tance’s wife vis­its, pro­vok­ing an un­ex­pected outburst. Mostly, though, X ru­mi­nates. This does not make for a ter­ri­bly dra­matic novel. But there is a dif­fer­ent kind of drama — and melan­choly lure — in the daily hu­man strug­gle to un­der­stand what it means to do “the right thing,” what­ever that might be.

The Dog is O’Neill’s follow-up to his ac­claimed 2008 novel,

Nether­land, which sim­i­larly fol­lowed a man in lands for­eign to him (in that book, a Dutch­man be­comes in­volved in New York City’s cricket cul­ture). Proved beyond ques­tion there, and reaf­firmed here, O’Neill is a highly ac­com­plished word­smith, as well as a bit of a show­man. Sen­tences in The Dog can wind on for up to half a page, or they can be weighed down in a mire of legalese that re­flects the con­vo­lu­tions of X’s moral and le­gal con­flicts. Par­en­thet­i­cal state­ments are so ram­pant that there are in­stances of six paren­the­ses in a row. The ab­sur­dity in some so-called rea­son­ing is ev­i­dent in such state­ments as “You never know un­til you know.” By turns pen­sive, ag­gres­sive, and darkly funny, this novel isn’t ter­ri­bly up­lift­ing. It leaves one with a sense of res­ig­na­tion that’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore in the face of state­ments like “it may be that most lives add up, in the end, to the sum of the mis­takes that can­not be cor­rected.” But, even so, there are worth­while in­sights and thought­ful mo­ments to sa­vor along the way. With its min­i­mal plot, the strength of The Dog lies in its philo­soph­i­cal pars­ings and dex­ter­ous styling.

— Grace La­batt

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