'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Book Review, December 1999

Seeing everything, understanding nothing

Apologizing to Dogs
Joe Coomer
Scribner
288 pp. $22


e 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 doesn’t 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 Nadine’s 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 wasn’t his to destroy. He disagrees. "You’re a new person, Nadine. Just like that baby. Just like my boat. It’s made from old materials but it’s new… If you want to own something of quality you have to make it. You can’t buy it. You can’t own a painting that someone else painted. You’ve 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 Nadine’s 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 Carl’s feelings but rejects them. "His love is out of proportion," she says. "He loves me more than I do myself."

Mrs. Haygood and her next-door neighbor, known only as Mazelle’s 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 Mazelle’s sweet husband. When he learns the truth—the middle of the novel is a cascade of sexual revelations—he 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… Striding through the loose dirt of the garden, he let the notion, fresh and vibrant, poke its head above the soil: perhaps he’d gained more than he'd lost.

This is an Old Testament novel—and 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 Carl’s ark. It is a novel about retribution, and the past’s 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 don’t 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 let’s 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.