Edgy, revelatory, disturbing, and beautifully written, Lauren Slater’s “The $60,000 Dog” is too unsentimental and idiosyncratic in structure to be lumped in with more traditional animal books. “Lassie Come-Home,” even “Marley and Me,” this is not.
In seven chapters, the psychologist and writer presents us with a series of incantatory stories from her life — among them, the magical time she spent in the woods feeding foxes to escape an often cruel mother in the throes of mental illness; a spell as a teen in foster care, when she raised a baby raccoon who could help herself to cheese and grapes in the fridge; and the circumstances of that titular “$60,000 dog,” the one with glaucoma (the overall maintenance figure, calculated by her husband, includes a $50-per-hour rate for years of dog walking), and how it illuminated, often harshly, elements of her marital relationship.
There are great gaps in time between episodes, and Slater doesn’t connect the dots for us; for instance, how did she end up in that foster home? But it doesn’t matter. She digs so deep within the stories that she’ll give you vertigo, leaving you breathless from the descent.
Take her eerie childhood memory of the spring evening when she and the “Callahan” (not their real name) kids were playing in a church parking lot. The giggles were silenced when a stained glass window ominously cranked open and a priest appeared, like a wrathful God, above them. The scene unfolds like a horror film, as the man points and recites the children’s names. Later that night, something horrifying happens to the Callahans.
This reveals another striking feature in this animal book: There are whole swaths of text in which no creature is mentioned. Slater doesn’t think she has to hit you over the head with a vampire bat to make her point, which is that animals made her who she is so her life story is inherently an animal story. A notion as right as it is radical.
Certainly, through animals, she has learned important life lessons: On horseback, she discovers that since everyone falls, you might as well learn how to do it properly. But animals don’t have to give her anything at all for her to be passionate about them.
Not everyone shares that feeling, however — her husband, for example. When one of her dogs requires expensive medical care, he is aghast. Slater is brutally confessional about this and all aspects of her life — like the time when both her dog and her daughter were missing and, for a split second, she couldn’t decide which to search for first.
She has no neat answers, but she takes us on a wild ride. The reader who goes along will share the feeling Slater had after riding horses: “I’d been freed,” she writes, “if only for a moment, from the prison that a person is, my human halter off, my whole self dilated, trees and teeth, fur and wind and every kind of weather pouring through me.”
Vicki Constantine Croke is writing a book for Random House about J.H. Williams and his daring rescue of a group of refugees from Burma to India on elephant back in World War II. She can be reached at email@example.com.