It’s hard to say which is more satisfying: a book that introduces you to a fascinating, new, unfamiliar world, or a book which is set in a time and place that you know intimately, and which really nails it.
For me, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert is a great example of the latter. It’s set in a fictional small town of Darby, New Hampshire, and man, is it familiar. It gives us painfully accurate picture of the small town full of foster children, incestuous shack people, pompous little fief lords, renovating interlopers, and limping, buck-toothed junk car collectors, who see no difference between the beauty of the snow on a stone wall and the beauty of a burnt-out washing machine riddled with bullet holes for target practice.
The Dogs of March (first in a series, The Darby Chronicles) introduces us to Howard Elman, foreman at a weaving factory in the early ’80’s. He hasn’t yet figured out that he’s going deaf, and he hasn’t yet figured out that there is nothing he can do about the way his world is coming apart and being rebuilt for some new purpose that doesn’t mean anything to him.
Here he appears around Thanksgiving in the dorm room of his son Freddy, the first of his children to go to college, with an early Christmas present:
Father and son looked at each other as if each had come across a crime. Both spoke at the same moment. Freddy said, “‘Lo,” and Howard said, “Where’d you get that goddamn beard?”Dark hair enveloped his face from the bottom of the eyes to the throat. A pink slash showed where his mouth was. His ears were partially hidden.
“I didn’t get it; I grew it,” said Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard. This phrase he could utter in a hundred ways, to convey degrees of sarcasm, exasperation, frustration, criticism, irony, cosmic outrage, even affection; a phrase that filled in when he had no other words; a staple–like rice or potatoes or refried beans–that could be fed into the maw of a starved vocabulary.
“You’re always yelling at me,” yelled Freddy.
“You look like a goddam A-rab,” yelled Howard.
“The word is Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Arab, Arab, Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Oh, I ain’t smart,” yelled Freddy, with emphasis on the “ain’t.”
“I’ll smarten you up,” yelled Howard, taking menacing steps forward, rifle at order arms, its butt skipping along the floor.
Freddy stood his ground, teeth chattering, clenched fists quivering at his sides.
The two stood breathing fire on each other for a few seconds.
Then Howard backed up. He realized he had been wrong. For man who had never learned to apologize, he did his best. He brought the rifle to present arms, and said, “Merry fucking Christmas.”
“No, not to me,” said Freddy.
“Trade it for a shotgun, then,” said Howard.
Freddy shook his head no no no no and retreated.
Howard remained in the middle of the room, holding the gun in offering.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with this rifle,” he said.
“I’m not interested in killing animals,” said Freddy with a shrug of hopelessness.
Dread rolled over Howard. College had pulled his son apart, scattered beliefs, habits, and loves like so many bits of a machine, and was now rebuilding him into a customized version of Freddy Elman.
The arc of the story follows a series of losses, errors, and painful discoveries, but it is somehow not a difficult book to read. Along with the brutal and tragic are dozens of little jokes and lavish gifts of beauty, as Howard, his long-suffering, teardrop-shaped wife Elenore, and his circle of malformed friends and privileged enemies rearrange themselves into a new world order — while other things, like Howard’s duty to strike back against the savagery of the dogs of March, never change.
A beautiful, frightening, tender-hearted book. And if you’ve ever been to a town meeting in a small town, you won’t want to miss chapter 13, where the wealthy, litigious newcomer tries to ram through her own agenda; the delusional, power-hungry selectman makes a tactical error; the white-bearded old loon is, as usual, the only one who talks sense, and the single-minded fire chief just wants a new firetruck, and can’t seem to get it.
What book or movie would you recommend, if you wanted someone to understand the place where you live?