The Boston Book Review, December 1999
Seeing everything, understanding nothing
Apologizing to Dogs
288 pp. $22
start our morning with that spy and diarist Effie watering her potted
plants, noting her neighbor Verma as she pulls her pants out of
her rear crack. Effie has many neighbors to keep track of, all living
on Worth Row in Fort Worth, Texas, selling antiques of one sort
or another. Aurura is pregnant and doesnt know it. Howard
is lying in one of the porcelain tubs in his front yard. Soon he
convinces 87-year old Mose to climb into a tub too. The Postlewaites
spend their days at the mall, watching rolls of film develop. Carl
is building a boat inside his house, building it out of his smooth
cypress walls and floors. When it's done, he walks next door to
Nadines and confesses his love, saying that he built his boat
so they could sail away. Nadine says that his house belonged to
history, that it wasnt his to destroy. He disagrees. "Youre
a new person, Nadine. Just like that baby. Just like my boat. Its
made from old materials but its new
If you want to own
something of quality you have to make it. You cant buy it.
You cant own a painting that someone else painted. Youve
got to build your own life."
Plainly Joe Coomer is in love with this collection of antiques, nicks and
all. Worth Row used to be dominated by Nadines mother, who carried on
an affair with Howard that was so shameful to her she never admitted it. Sex
is the street's secret. With her mother dead, Nadine struggles to keep up
the Row. She wants lawns cut every Friday, so the houses will look their spiffy
best on Saturday. She knows Carls feelings but rejects them. "His
love is out of proportion," she says. "He loves me more than I do
Mrs. Haygood and her next-door neighbor, known only as Mazelles husband,
have been gardening a small plot of land together for the last 34 years. Meanwhile,
six feet below in a hollowed-out cistern, their respective spouses have been
carrying on an affair. The affair has produced four children, all raised by
Mazelles sweet husband. When he learns the truththe middle of
the novel is a cascade of sexual revelationshe thinks of his children.
Strange, how none of this affected his love for them. He knew they'd always
looked upon him as a vacant but kind draft horse, but he also knew they
respected him. One of his sons truly loved him, and his daughters still
sought solace in his arms. He had no fears of being rejected by his children.
They'd always accepted him as their father and always would
through the loose dirt of the garden, he let the notion, fresh and vibrant,
poke its head above the soil: perhaps hed gained more than he'd lost.
This is an Old Testament noveland not just because Verma, that old
believer who spends the novel dying on her showroom floor, suffers through
famine, flood, and fire before carrying her two Pekinese, in a final heroic
gesture, to safety in Carls ark. It is a novel about retribution, and
the pasts responsibility to the future. It is a novel about time, with
Effie keeping track of every tick of the clock ("5:47 Bowel movement.
Nothing special. 5:49 Here comes Tradio. He thinks I dont have a gun.").
Peering obsessively through her blinds, she sees everything and understands
nothing. Poor Verma fetches the morning paper and her life ends. "We
are doomed to mystery and knowledge," Mose says, expressing the fatalism
against which sex and love rise in stubborn protest.
And lets not forget the dog, sniffing his way
among the various houses. His wanderings draw a sort of lyrical writing from
Coomer, an unforced sweetness of imagination that lifts the book like a summer
breeze. It is the dog who happens on the cistern, who sniffs out the couple
having sex six feet below, and it is his electric discovery of his own sexual
desire that causes him to start digging. Everyone is judged by how they treat
this animal, and in a novel of extraordinary rightness, that touch seems the
most right of all.