"Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" by Susan Orlean
RIN TIN TIN: The Life and the Legend By Susan Orlean
Simon and Schuster, 324 pp., illustrated, $26.99
If you were young in the 1950s (in other words, old now), and your family was among the 50 percent of American households that owned a TV then, your childhood highlights reel might includes these: Elvis gyrating as Ed Sullivan shuddered. Jackie Gleason threatening to send his wife, Alice, “To da moon.’’ Ricky warning his: “Lucy, you got some ’splainin’ to do.’’
And then there were the dog shows, “Lassie’’ and “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin.’’ Lassie was a sweet, silken-haired, sable-and-white collie who lived on a farm with her boy, Timmy. “Rinty’’ was a brown German shepherd who lived with the US Cavalry. Just as no one liked both the Yankees and the Mets, no one liked both Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.
I didn’t just like Lassie - I lived for Lassie. Every Sunday at 8 p.m. found me sitting straight-spined on the living room floor, inches from the black-and-white screen. I was president of my school’s Lassie Fan Club. My bedroom was a canine paean cluttered with Lassie likenesses. Once was enough for me, Rin Tin Tin-wise. Where everything about “Lassie’’ was light and pretty and heartwarming, everything about “Rin-Tin-Tin’’ was dark and scary. Even the Motion Picture Association of America complained that the show often included “shooting, knifing, punching, war, arrow shooting, Indian attacks.’’
So imagine my surprise, reading “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,’’ and falling in love. With the dog. (A succession of dogs, actually; even fearless Rinty couldn’t live as long as his legacy.) And with Lee Duncan, the American soldier and human protagonist of the book, who pulled the original Rin Tin Tin from a bombed-out French kennel two weeks before the end of World War I. And most of all with Susan Orlean, the New Yorker staff writer, literary anthropologist, and author of “The Orchid Thief,’’ adapted to the big screen as “Adaptation,’’ who devoted a decade of her life to this meticulously researched, gorgeously written tale.
Do you even need a story about the world’s most famous dog to swoon over sentences like this? “Most afternoons Lee retreated to a little annex off his barn that he called the Memory Room, where he shuffled through old newspaper clips and yellowing photographs of Rin Tin Tin’s glory days, pulling the soft quilt of memory - of what really was and what he recalled and what he wished had been - over the bony edges of his life.’’
Orlean begins her stunning, sweeping dog-ography by detailing Rinty’s rescuer’s unstable childhood. Rescued from an orphanage himself, Duncan was raised on a Southern California ranch where he learned to love animals and breed dogs. Orlean mines Duncan’s writings and augments the historical record with her own field research - including her pilgrimage, richly recounted, to the French village where Rin Tin Tin was born. So we believe her when she reconstructs Duncan’s emotions about the day in September 1918 when he stumbled onto a litter of puppies on an abandoned battlefield. “[H]e marveled at his good fortune in finding the puppies, turning the story over and over again and again like a shiny stone, watching it catch the light.’’
Tracing the dog’s career, as directed by his self-described “master and friend,’’ Orlean simultaneously traces the development of the film, television, and advertising industries and their lucrative byproducts. Between 1922 and 1931 Rin Tin Tin (the first) starred in 19 movies. His successors, Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Rin Tin Tin III, starred in a total of 14 more movies between 1932 and 1947.
It was Rin Tin Tin IV who competed for Lassie lovers’ affections in the TV series that ran on ABC from 1954 to 1959. In his various incarnations, Rinty also dominated breakfast cereals, lunchboxes, and figurines, the kitsch of which 1950s childhoods were made.
Don’t let the book’s title fool you. Calling “Rin Tin Tin’’ the story of a dog is like calling “Moby Dick’’ the story of a whale. Orlean surfs the tide of time, pushing off in the 1900s and landing in the now, delivering a witty synopsis of nearly a century of Rin Tin Tins and American popular culture. The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
“A singular passion helps you slice through the mess of the world,’’ Orlean writes of Duncan and the other Rinty-obsessives she met while researching the book, “but I had also come to believe that cutting such a narrow path plays tricks with proportion and balance . . . I myself began to feel like I was getting a little unhinged, launching into arguments whenever anyone made a comment equating Rin Tin Tin with Lassie, or asked me . . . why I had spent years writing a book about a dog.’’
I, for one, don’t care whether Susan Orlean wrote “Rin Tin Tin,’’ a book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover, because she likes dogs (anyone who reads her books, articles, New Yorker blog, or tweets knows that she recently relocated from upstate New York to Los Angeles, bringing her adored springer spaniel but leaving a small menagerie of barnyard creatures behind), or because she likes uncovering buried American history, or because she liked Rinty better than Lassie and she wanted to explain why. I’m just glad she did.
Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of “My Lie.’’ Her first novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ will be published by Counter point/Soft Skull Press in February 2012. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.