I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)
This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson. Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre. In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner. Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being. In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson. Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet. Are the similarities a bit obvious?
I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice. The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment). Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend. Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.
Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn. Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs. In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner. Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.
It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end. Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future. Right… It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear. Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.
One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events. In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”
The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel. It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible. With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.
There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style. Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.