Timbuktu and SHU

Timbuktu and SHU (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Seton Hill University’s summer reading book is Timbuktu, a shaggy dog story. (Only the dog’s not so shaggy.)

I stated reading while proctoring a final exam yesterday, and I finished it that evening during my son’s piano lesson. Reading the whole book (less than 200 pages) couldn’t have taken more than 2 1/2 hours.

Mr. Bones is neither White Fang nor Snoopy. I didn’t mind the fantastic expectation that he understands English, but once or twice when the author falls back on “..but he didn’t know any of that, because he was just a dog” I thought the limited anthropomorphism wasn’t working.

I’d rather the author have bitten the bullet, and just given us a story about a dog that understands humans better than we understand ourselves. If it’s a good story, I’ll accept it the same way I would accept a self-aware computer or a magic ring that turns you invisible or a clerk waking up one morning having transformed into a giant insect, or that the universe is controlled by the Force.

I liked the word play in Willy’s scenes, and felt that overall the story works — that is, it’s an adaptation in novel form of the shaggy dog story: a long-winded, masterfully told, but annoyingly anticlimactic joke.

We had an Irish Setter (“Mayo”) when I was a kid, and my sister had a mostly-lab-part-something (“Gem,” named for a wide-eyed empath in an episode of classic Star Trek). But I suppose parts of the book would register more with me if I were a pet owner, just as news reports or movies that depict children in danger grab me more powerfully now that I am a parent.

I liked how the author stretched out the inevitable death scene, or more precisely I was entertained by the literary quality of the stories Astor used to fill that space. I was willing to give the epic quest plot a chance, and wasn’t disappointed. I think I was expecting some encounter with another dog, and would have enjoyed looking at canine society in contrast to human society, but Mr. Bones remains a loner. A was a little disappointed that the scattered references to the Holocaust didn’t go anywhere. Their effect was to make me question myself for identifying with a dog, after briefly raising the plight of people who are hunted like dogs.

The last scenario in the story, which brings Mr. Bones into the world of suburban lawns and minivans, could have been the beginning of a sappy story about how a dog came into the life of any of a handful of people and changed them forever, but that’s not the story Astor wants to tell. I was actually grateful that he doesn’t spend a lot of time fleshing out that family, since quite frankly we can write the story in our heads once he sketches out what Mr. Bones brings to that family and how his presence alters its dynamics.

A quick read. The structure was more interesting to me than the content, but because the structure was so good, and the digressions entertaining, I didn’t really mind that.