Raymond Queneau’s 1947 book “Exercises in Style” famously demonstrated 99 different ways to tell the same story. One that did not make it in was the concept of recounting someone’s life through the pets that have loomed large in it — but Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs” makes a resonant case that this approach might just work. It’s certainly effective here, with Boylan writing movingly about the dogs that she’s lived with from childhood through middle age.

The approach she takes with “Good Boy” also helps distinguish it from her other nonfiction works, which have included memoirs focused on distinctive aspects of her life. While “Good Boy” covers a wide range of themes – from gender to creativity to parenting – the dogs provide the prism through which they’re seen. And Boylan’s observations on the bonds between humans and canines are both deeply felt and often moving.

“This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been,” Boylan writes early on in the memoir. And much as dogs can inspire joy, fear, and sadness depending on the circumstances, so too does “Good Boy” cover a wide emotional range. The dogs discussed here include the hyperactive Matt the Mutt; “Kennebec Valley Flycatcher” Lucy; and a round Dalmatian named Penny, who is eventually renamed Sausage.

The journey Boylan takes over the course of this book covers a lot of ground, including her childhood, her marriage, her transition from male to female, and her experiences as a parent. If the Kennebec Valley reference above wasn’t enough of an indicator, there’s also a great deal of Maine in it; Boylan taught at Colby College for many years, and continues to live in Belgrade Lakes.

In many cases, the bonds Boylan has with various dogs allow her to show refracted versions of other elements in her life. As one might expect in a book about dogs, this includes a lot of rumination on mortality and aging, as well as the fundamental difficulties inherent to knowing anyone.

But there are also memorable digressions that Boylan eventually brings around into the main narrative; years after she’s departed the book, a memory of Boylan’s old dog Penny makes an emotionally devastating re-appearance. In another scene, Boylan learns about the favorite music of one of her dogs just before its death, and it’s something that lines up entirely with Boylan’s earlier discussions of music – from singer-songwriter John Prine to psych-rockers Gong – elsewhere in the book.

Parts of “Good Boy” are overwhelmingly sad. Other scenes are wryly funny, including the accounts of the aforementioned Matt the Mutt, and Boylan’s memories of the dogs of her youth. “And so we became a family of three Dalmatians, each one slightly more insane than the one that had come before,” she writes. This book doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects, but it also has no small number of amusing stories of dogs in motion – as well as one memorable appearance by a moose.

Ultimately, Boylan isn’t simply writing about pets; she’s writing about them in the context of life, change and mortality. Early in the book, Boylan revisits spending her first Thanksgiving at home without her older sister, who’s now living across the country. “In the years since then, I have come to understand that this is exactly what happens: you get used to a certain way of being in the world, and then it changes.” It’s a quietly profound statement, made even more so by the substantial changes that have shaken the world over the last two years.

“Why is it that what is so obvious to dogs is such a mystery to men and women?” Boylan asks near the end of her book. And it’s here, too, that “Good Boy” strikes a melancholy note. After all, it could be said that dogs have an emotional acuity that many people lack, and observational powers that writers would envy. Can ordering one’s life by the dogs in it offer moments of revelation? “Good Boy” makes an excellent case that it could.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for The New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: