Review: 'The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe' charms

Hundreds of books have been written about movie star extraordinaire Marilyn Monroe. Everyone from Norman Mailer to Gloria Steinem has weighed in on the American icon, who would be 84 now had she not died of a barbiturate overdose in 1962, rendering her a shimmering golden vision (and muse) forever.

And now her dog has his say.

I know. My first reaction was to wince at what sounded like a sentimental gimmick. But in the hands of acclaimed literary novelist Andrew O'Hagan, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is a marvelously entertaining, smart and insightful look at stardom, loneliness and loyalty.

O'Hagan's fiction is based on fact, beginning with Maf himself. Monroe owned a Maltese she named Mafia Honey during the troubled last two years of her life. The snow-white pup was a gift from Frank Sinatra to the "blue" Monroe after her divorce from playwright Arthur Miller. Years later, at an auction of Monroe's effects, Maf's dog tag and license sold for $63,000.

But O'Hagan turns that little dog into an engaging, witty and often surprising narrator. As the book's title, an echo of 18th century writers such as Henry Fielding, suggests, Maf the Dog is a picaresque, the episodic adventures of a charming rogue, in a style both satirical and lyrical.

Maf is well aware of his literary forebears, as well as his literal ones. Dogs, he tells us, absorb not only human moods but human knowledge: If you've ever thought your dog might know your thoughts, you were right. He knows the books you've been reading, too — and whether you really finished them.

Maf, who spent his puppyhood in the household of Bloomsbury Circle members Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, is as well-read as any English department grad student. As he tells it, dogs are particularly interested in literature, philosophy and politics and love to argue about those subjects. (Most dogs, Maf notes, are socialists.) He sprinkles his tale with learned references to other books narrated by dogs, by authors from Cervantes to Bell's sister Virginia Woolf. He even provides ample footnotes: "A dog is bound to like footnotes. We spend our lives down here."

Maf is also a cheerfully enthusiastic name-dropper. His breed, one of dogdom's oldest, was created as lapdogs for the noble and powerful, so when his "fated companion" turns out to be an enormously famous movie star, he's up to the job.

Maf is no mere lap sitter, though. Monroe takes him everywhere, and that gives O'Hagan a canvas for a spot-on portrait of the glamorous life in the early 1960s. Courtesy of the pup, we meet Sinatra, Natalie Wood, Lee Strasberg, Roy Lichtenstein.

On one occasion, Maf and Marilyn go to a party at the New York apartment of literary critic Alfred Kazin, where the guests include writers Carson McCullers, Lillian Hellman, Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg and critics Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe and Lionel and Diane Trilling. Maf bites two of those guests, rightfully so, and O'Hagan draws them all with bright, sure strokes.

Much as he loves to dish, though, Maf is devoted to Monroe. He takes us inside some of her private moments — notably a session with famed psychoanalyst Marianne Kris that turns into an epic battle of wills — but he is discreet when it counts and always ready to defend her honor.

He is also wise about the difference between a public image and a private person, and how much power the first has to shape the latter — or even crush it. That's never more touchingly evident than when he witnesses Monroe's famous first meeting with President John Kennedy at the beach house of Kennedy's brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford:

"They could never have been just any man and woman meeting in the corner of a party, it couldn't be imagined, especially not by them: their conversation was a meeting of private fantasies that would breed private fantasies, and my memory of their talk is of something dramatic lying just under the surface. ...

"Sitting by the patio windows at Lawford's house, they seemed to present such a heavenly coalition of natural accomplishments that no one could resist picturing them in each other's arms."

Good book. Good dog.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe

By Andrew O'Hagan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

277 pages, $24

Review: 'The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe' charms 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 3:30am]

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