Suzanne Berne's The Dogs of Littlefield is a crisp, entertaining, darkish comedy of manners that might leave you doubting every "best-of" list you've ever read.
The book's fictional setting, a small town in Massachusetts, has placed sixth on a Wall Street Journal list of "Twenty Best Places to Live in America."
What makes Littlefield great? "Leafy streets, old Victorian houses, fine public schools and a small university. ... home to roughly one percent of the nation's psychotherapists."
That disproportionate figure is one thing that attracted the attention of Clarice Watkins, a sociocultural anthropologist who has just moved to town, ostensibly to teach at the college but really because she's doing field work on the residents. "How did global destabilization, she wondered, register among what must be the world's most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population?"
Clarice arrives just in time to observe Littlefield's own destabilization. It is, as you might expect of an affluent suburb, a town with lots of dogs. A proposal has been put before the town's aldermen to create an off-leash dog park in Baldwin Park, Littlefield's main public green space.
Seems like a no-brainer to dog owners — but then the signs start appearing, hand-written on cardboard or brown paper bags. At first they're just finger-shaking reminders about picking up poop, but they grow more ominous: "Leash your beast or else."
Then one fall morning Margaret Downing lets her half-grown black Labrador, Binx, off his leash in the park. He happily tears off, plunges into a creek and climbs up the other side. By the time Margaret catches up with him, he's sniffing "something enormous and pale, its coat so short as to make it seem hairless. ... Bloodied, yellowish foam had collected around the folds of its muzzle." It's the corpse of a white mastiff. Feldman, as the dog is called, has been poisoned.
Feldman's death is only the first. Berne will introduce us to an array of dogs: Boris the English sheepdog, Lucky the basset hound, Skittles the Labradoodle, Aggie the aged yellow Lab and "an old gray toy poodle named Kismet, as fragile as a Faberge egg." Not all of them will survive.
At first the townsfolk try to explain Feldman's death as an accident. Littlefield has a robust coyote population; perhaps someone trying to get rid of them poisoned the dog by accident. But the number of dead dogs continues to climb.
The question of who is killing dogs, and why, runs through the book, but this is satire, not mystery. Berne, whose first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won Britain's Orange Prize for fiction, has a wonderful gift for creating sharply observed characters and pitting them against each other in such settings as a cobbled-together Christmas dinner, a contentious town meeting and the worst book club discussion ever.
Berne shifts the narrative among the points of view of several characters. Most central is Margaret, a middle-aged stay-at-home wife and mother whose marriage is crumbling, a process accelerated when her husband, Bill, discovers the investment firm he works for is under federal investigation. Their snarly teenage daughter, Julia, is firm in her "conviction that anything her mother requested somehow violated her most vital liberties."
Desperately unhappy, Margaret finds herself flirting with the late Feldman's owner, George Wechsler. A former high school teacher separated from his wife, George is now an author, having published a novel about a blind yeshiva student who wants to be a baseball player (seriously). Margaret notes "a stolid pugnacity about him, an exaggerated maleness" that piques her interest.
Berne tracks their relationship with mordant humor and no romantic illusions about the realities of midlife affairs:
"Afterward they lay for a time, side by side, looking at the shifting leaf patterns thrown by sunlight on his bedroom wall, sharing a kind of collegial relief that their ordeal was over, as if they had delivered a joint lecture that was received with indifference and then had retired to a campus bar."
Even minor characters are delineated with the same sure, witty touch, as when a professor's wife describes the graduate student she suspects her husband is sleeping with: "Willa Clamage, she went on to explain, lowering her voice, was the sort of young woman who wore ballet flats and short, filmy dresses, even in November. Otherwise she was very smart." Two sentences, all we need to recognize both women.
Amid all this deft and vivid realism, Berne keeps us guessing. Is there really a plague of ghosts in Littlefield — Julia's goldfish, Bill's father, the apparition of a character from the book George is working on who materializes to give him advice on sex, the fearsome phantom of Feldman that haunts Margaret and others? Or is this just, as Clarice noted, a "well-medicated population" (including some of the dogs) that might need its meds adjusted?
Revelations will come, but the real payoff of this novel is getting to know the characters Berne creates. Littlefield is a great place to visit — although you wouldn't want to live there.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.