A dog's life on the streets

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 12:00am

A portrait of the artist through the eyes of his dog. Willy G Christmas, footloose wanderer in the summer months, poet and believer in the divinity of dogs in the winter, is dying of tuberculosis. He was formerly Willy Gurevitch, but took the new name in honour of his mentor, St Nick. Father Christmas came to him once in a drunken vision and instructed him to turn himself into a saint. It must be his mission in life, said Santa, to embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.

At Willy's side is his dog, Mr Bones, his faithful companion. His canine goodness inspires in the child-like poet the belief that his pet is the incarnation of an angel. Can it be an accident, after all, that the word dog spelled backwards is God? In the dying man's mind, and in the very human mental landscape of his best friend, this is one pooch who is headed for Doggie Heaven when the time comes. Heaven for both of them is the place Willy calls Timbuktu. It is where unpublished poets meet their Maker and dogs go to meet their masters. There they can speak to each other in human language and as equals.

And as Willy's final moment approaches, Mr Bones is visited by a vision of his own - a dream in which he foresees a kind of happy ending for his master. He sees him dying in a hospital bed, united with the childhood teacher who had once recognised his talent and might, even now, find him a posthumous publisher.

But on Willy's death, Mr Bones' world is turned upside down. Fearing the dog-pound, starvation or worse - mindful of Willy's jocular warnings of what can happen to a dog if he falls into the trap of begging at Chinese restaurants - he tries to fend for himself.

Instead, he falls in with the lonely son of a Chinese restaurateur. When the inevitable happens (no, not the cooking-pot, of course, though Mr Bones does not wait around to find out), he flees again. Accompanied and encouraged by his dreams of Willy, he is ensnared by the equally threatening comforts of middle-class America.

Auster's skill in portraying the world through the mind of a dog with a perfect understanding of English provides entertainment as well as pathos. He manages to avoid both cloying sentimentality and dwelling on the daily trivia of doghood, either of which could all too easily have spoiled this light but satisfying read.

Exploring Willy's sad career through the understanding eyes of his faithful companion, we realise the poet does not inhabit an entirely cheerless universe, despite his mental and physical illness, loneliness and wretched poverty. However, the strength of this novel is also the source of its main weakness. The death of the poet changes the focus of the writing.

For the first half of the book, the dog may be the filter, but the subject is the man. Once Willy is out of the picture, the subject is Mr Bones. As a decent, possibly angelic, animal, the dog is certainly worthy of a good story; and the tale of his passage through the purgatory of life in suburban America to the pearly gates of Timbuktu is told with entertaining verve. But Mr Bones is not as complex or interesting a character as his good-hearted, but infuriatingly self-destructive late master.

In the transition from the portrait of a poet to the portrait of a dog, the narrative loses some of its verbal and dramatic intensity. Despite this structural flaw, however, Timbuktu is a highly enjoyable read.

Timbuktu by Paul auster Henry Holt & Company $230