Americans love their dogs, and Southerners love their storytelling. No Southern storyteller worth his or her salt is without at least one story, funny or poignant or heroic, about a dog, and now 51 fine examples have been collected in Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty.
The book's editor is David DiBenedetto, who is the editor of Garden & Gun magazine. Garden & Gun, based in Charleston, S.C., bills itself as "the soul of the South." A hybrid of lifestyle and literary magazines, it boasts a roster of such notable writers as Pat Conroy and Donna Tartt.
Despite its name, DiBenedetto writes, "the magazine's Holy Trinity is bourbon, dogs, and barbecue, but dogs truly reign supreme." The monthly "Good Dog" column from which this book's essays are drawn has been a reader favorite since the magazine's first issue in 2007.
It's easy to see why. These salutes to beloved canines vary widely in tone, and every dog stands out as an individual, but all of the stories are written with craft and care, and all of them glow with love.
As the book's handsome cover illustrated with dog portraits suggests, many of these stories are about hunting dogs: setters, pointers, retrievers, hounds. Not every one of them, though, is noble. In "The Trophy Huntress" by novelist Jonathan Miles (Want Not), we meet Julip, an indecipherably mixed-breed female that he tries to train as a gun dog — only to discover that she loves guns too much. "While she was able to find and flush quail, the moment a trigger was pulled, it was all over. A berserk tail-whipping glee would overcome her.... For Julip, birds were not the object of a day afield. Bangs were."
Journalist and memoirist Rick Bragg (Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story) writes in "The Sweetest Sound" about his memories of a mixed-breed coon hound named Joe: "(M)ostly he seemed composed of thin white lines where his body had been ripped and torn, as if instead of breeding those bloodlines into him some Doctor Frankenstein had just sewn him together from spare parts." His ears have been chewed off at the skull by the raccoons that are his quarry. But during a late-night hunt, to a young Bragg and his friends, Joe's baying in the distance is pure music.
While crime fiction author Ace Atkins (The Forsaken) and his wife were living on a farm near Paris, Miss., he writes, "we rescued a lot of dogs. ... We lost count at more than a hundred." Most they found homes for, but a few stayed on. The eponymous "Ole No. 7" is about of one of those, an American foxhound that shows up at the farm "skin and bones, starving to death, a hunting dog who'd lost the trail of the hunt. ..." It takes two weeks of feeding before the dog will even let Atkins touch him, but it turns out his hunt ended in the right place. A devoted family dog and coyote warrior, 7 becomes "one of us."
But there are stories here about all kinds of dogs, not just hunters. In "Hurricane Muffin," novelist Katie Crouch (Abroad) remembers her family's cairn terrier, who "wasn't a good dog. ... yappy and mean, calculating and chewy." Despite his inglorious career, on the day in 1989 that Hurricane Hugo bears down on her family's hometown, it's Muffin to the rescue. "It seemed a slim hope, to trail a stinky terrier with no credentials, but we did it," and found themselves safe in a downstairs windowless hallway when the roof blew off and the windows blew in.
Sportswriter and novelist John Ed Bradley (Tupelo Nights) writes in "Emmett & Me" about an irresistible English bulldog. Emmett stinks and farts and slobbers and humps people's legs, but when Bradley took him for rides through the French Quarter in New Orleans, perched in the back of a pickup truck, "Tourists fed him Lucky Dogs, beignets, and jambalaya. They let him sip from their go cups. The strippers and transvestites on Bourbon Street, the art dealers and antiquarians on Royal and Chartres — it seemed everybody had to run out and say hello."
In the last essay, "How to Name a Dog," Daniel Wallace writes a quiet elegy to a series of them, from the very first dog of his boyhood, a boxer who was "sent away to live on an old lady's farm out in the country ... where I believe he is to this day."
"They are empty vessels we fill with a reflection of ourselves," he writes, "or, alternatively, they come ready-made with their own strong personalities, which, insane as they sometimes are, we accept, because they accept ours. ... They love you the same until they die." Good dogs.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.