When I first picked up Pam Houston’s debut novel, Sight Hound, a little alarm bell went off in my head. First, in the opening chapter, Rae, a successful, 40-something playwright, discusses reincarnation with her therapist, considering the possibility she was among those killed at Dachau. The therapist instructs her to do Emotional Freedom Techniques, “where you rub your sore spot and say your affirmation.” Second, the next morning Rae drives to Boulder to visit a fortuneteller named Madame Roslinka who assures her that “the spirit has helped you out, not one time, but many times.” Third, in chapter two, an Irish wolfhound named Dante speaks.
At this point, my alarm bell, highly attuned to anything remotely sentimental or new-agey, has gone off and off and off. It’s not that I don’t believe in reincarnation or fortunetelling; I might. And it’s not that I don’t like dogs; I do. But a novel wherein a cancer-stricken, three-legged Irish wolfhound (“The first point I’d like to clear up is that there are three legs left, three good legs...”) decides his job before impending death is “to teach my human that she deserve[s] to be loved” might be a little much. Did I mention that Dante quotes from Goethe and Buddha?
I was this close to renting Old Yeller and calling it a day.
But it’s Pam Houston, whose eccentric and fearless writing has a strange tendency to work when it shouldn’t. Sight Hound is unabashedly sentimental. Additionally, it’s loosely structured around a series of alternating narrators who explain how their lives intersect with Rae’s and Dante’s. As if that weren’t risky enough, the Irish wolfhound isn’t the only speaking animal. Rose, Rae’s other dog, and a cat named Stanley also weigh in with opinions, the latter offering: “I’m going to overlook the fact that my opinion was solicited late in the game. Creatures of the feline persuasion are used to such treatment. However, you’ve done your project an injustice by not coming to me sooner.”
This is tricky business, but Houston infuses Sight Hound with purpose, fun and touching humor. By the end of chapter two, I was sold on whatever wisdom Dante had to offer. “There are three principles to remember if you are to teach a human being anything, and they are consistency, consistency, consistency. They are such fragile creatures to begin with, with poor eyes, poorer hearing, and no sense of smell left to speak of, it’s no wonder they are made to fear.” Though anthropomorphism makes the traditionalist in all of us skeptical, Dante’s insights actually ground the novel. He is a “sight hound,” meaning he tracks by what he sees rather than what he smells, thereby observing truths about Rae’s life more deeply than a human might. By default, some of the chapters narrated by Dante and the other animals are actually the novel’s strongest and most compelling.
Sight Hound works because it’s not gimmicky. Writing about the human-canine connection is a logical extension of Houston’s past work. In fact, dogs are a large part of how she interprets the world. In the essay “The Bad Dogs of Park City” (from A Little More About Me), Houston admires the ways in which shrewd dogs avoid persistent attempts by city officials to curb their nighttime meanderings. In a story from the acclaimed collection Cowboys Are My Weakness she writes of “a dog named Jackson, who between the ages of four and five…became suicidal.” Finally, another passage from her nonfiction collection A Little More About Me reveals that Houston actually had an Irish wolfhound with cancer named Dante, thus illustrating the autobiographical roots of Sight Hound. “Dante has a wider range of emotions than any man I dated during my twenties,” Houston wrote there. “I am grateful that he is only my dog. If he were my son I’d have doomed his future wives and girlfriends a hundred times over.”
For fans of Houston’s past successes, Sight Hound’s Rae will feel like a heroine from Cowboys Are My Weakness—only a decade older and a little more emotionally vulnerable. For skeptics, Sight Hound’s premise might initially compel snide remarks about the neighbor’s dog, but in the end, the book is profoundly entertaining. Like much of Houston’s other writings, an unabashed style has a way of communicating Houston’s message that much more completely.
As Dante, the eminent authority on Buddha, quotes: “‘Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.’” Pam Houston’s work was to discover the best way to illustrate this novel’s message: that every creature, human and nonhuman alike, must strive toward a connection that binds us to love, to beauty and to joy, despite the fact that these connections are tenuous. Told from the point of view of eccentric people and animals alike, the message loses its hackneyed self-help tone and becomes poignantly sincere and, even, a little powerful.
Pam Houston will appear at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, March 30, at 7:30 PM, for a reading and book signing.