So … two gods walk into a bar … sounds like the beginning of some really bad joke. This book is no joke. I can honestly say that when I turned the final page my first thought was that this book has easily made it onto my personal list of 5 Best Books EVER! I realize that may have been a knee-jerk reaction because I could never really compose a list of FIVE BEST EVER, but if I had a list it would be a contender. Is there a 7-star rating system somewhere?
FIFTEEN DOGS by Andre Alexis ... back to my review … seriously, two gods – Apollo and Hermes – walk into the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in downtown Toronto to have a couple of drinks. As gods are want they begin a discussion about the nature of humanity.
“Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other, neither better nor worse than fleas or elephants, say. Humans have no special merit, though they think themselves superior.”
Hermes took the opposing view feeling that human creativity and language using symbols is interesting. After further discussion, and a few more bottles of Sleemans, they decide to make a bet and conduct an experiment. Wondering if animals – any animal chosen – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence. With a human year's worth of servitude to the winner at stake Hermes takes the bet, but on the condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, he wins.
“As it happened, the gods were not far from the veterinary clinic at Shaw. Entering the place unseen and imperceptible, they found dogs, mostly: pets left overnight by their owners for one reason or another. So dogs it was …”
As each of the fifteen dogs awoke they were confused and a little frightened by their new “awareness”. Their first order of business, of course, was to get free of the their cages and as far away from the clinic as possible. And so starts the story of how fifteen dogs lived (and died) with the gift of human awareness and language.
The subject matter, and the gods referring to it as an experiment, harbingers – I’m sure – those readers who will not be able to resist analyzing this work of fiction to death. They will site Allegory, Existentialism, Philosophy, Raised Consciousness and Societal Realities. Those readers are probably deeper thinkers than I and they could possibly be right. This book could be construed as one writer’s study of the evolution or de-evolution, depending on your perspective, of humanity (albeit starring dogs). I simply consider it a wonderful book.
Fifteen Dogs explores so many themes that it is difficult to narrow down any one particular. My suggestion would be to not even try. Think of it as well thought out and beautifully written prose that also happens to make you ponder life a little. If you have ever owned a dog, or any other pet for that matter, that you imagined having conversations with, this book will appeal to you on the level that it did me. My only criticism, if I had to make one under duress, might be that winning the bet for either Apollo or Hermes rests on whether the dog “dies happy”, so by necessity the book features each dog’s passing. Some are quiet and dignified while others are bloody and brutal. Those were heart-wrenching pages to read but they were well balanced in other sections with humor and tenderness.
Mr. Alexis has written several other books, and being on a little bit of a "reader’s high" after reading this one, I wanted to run out and get his others as well. I hesitate, because if they are of a similar vein I’m not sure I can handle the emotional roller coaster.
So who wins the bet? Does one or do all of the dogs die feeling happiness?
Uh-uh, not telling!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)
Andre Alexis was born in Trinidad, grew up in Ottawa, Ontario and currently resides in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel and Trillium Book Award, and was short-listed for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His previous books include Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid and the Wolf, and, most recently, Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prize.
If I have not chosen a book to read because of someone else’s review then I try to be very diligent about not reading other reviews before I sit down to write mine. Of course, after I do, I must go and see what other people thought. At 171 pages this is not what I would consider to be a lengthy book … barely above being called a Novella. “Mightymike” on Amazon.ca wrote “well written and surprisingly long for such a short book”. I’m sure it was a compliment and I agree … it does pack quite a punch in its 171 pages.