I Thought You Were Dead, by Peter Nelson
(Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010)
"For Paul Gustavson, a hack writer for the wildly popular For Morons series, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a debilitating stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother has invested his parents' money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, a new pair of running shoes, and Stella. Beautiful Stella. With long, sleek legs, kind eyes, lustrous blond hair. Their relationship is the one true bright spot in his world. She offers him sage advice on virtually every topic. And she only wets herself every once in a while.
"Stella is Paul's dog, and she listens with compassion to all his complaints about the injustices of life and gives him better counsel than any human could. In fact, she seems to know Paul better than he knows himself. It's their relationship that is at the heart of I Thought You Were Dead, a poignantly funny and deeply moving story about a man trying to fix his past in order to save his future, and about a dog who understands just what it means to be a man's best friend."
"In the winter of 1998, at the close of the twentieth century, in a small college town on the Connecticut River, on the sidewalk outside a house close enough to the railroad tracks that the pictures on the walls were in constant need of straightening, not that anybody ever straightened them, Paul Gustavson, having had a bit too much to drink, took the glove off his right hand, wedged it into his left armpit, and fumbled in his pants pocket for his house keys."
Surprising. I wouldn't have expected to enjoy a novel that opens with a run-on sentence like this, or one where the protagonist's talking dog is an important character -- but this is a sweet, gentle story about a lonely man at a crossroads trying to come to terms and move forward with his imperfect life. (And the talking dog works, even for a diehard realist like me, if you read it as Paul simply talking to his dog while they're alone, and imagining what she might say if she could indeed respond. Don't all pet owners do this?) Paul's relationship with his struggling father, which evolves primarily over the internet, is especially poignant. His ill-defined relationship with Tamsen is an interesting plot line as well, though I wasn't as satisfied with the way Nelson resolved this one.