Dog lives

Jon Katz, Mark Doty, and their best friends
By AMY FINCH  |  August 1, 2007


Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm | by Jon Katz | Villard | 299 pages | $23.95

Dog Years: A Memoir | by Mark Doty | HarperCollins | 224 pages | $23.95

Dog Days, Dog Years, dog decades, dog centuries . . . where will this madness end? Actually, this pair of books adds much to the growing dog-lit genre. In Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm, Jon Katz picks up where last year’s A Good Dog (both from Villard) left off. Orson — the crazy border collie who revamped Katz’s life — is dead, but his three other dogs and his donkeys, cows, sheep, chickens, and cat still need their daily victuals. Bedlam Farm cannot pause to mourn, so Katz — with the help of his wife, Paula — must trudge forth, sad heart and sore back be damned. Dog Days takes a wider-angle view than Katz’s previous Bedlam books, if only because manic-intellect Orson is absent. This time, we get to hear more about the peripheral characters, each one irresistible: Elvis the steer, Carol the donkey, Winston the rooster, sheep Number 57. Some of these will be familiar to readers of Katz’s column at

This is Katz’s fourth book describing his transformation from middle-aged suburban New Jersey writer (of mystery novels, non-fiction, magazine articles) to upstate New York farm owner. As always, he writes with a dry wit and an affection that never lapses into sentimentality, and he retains his curiosity about rural life. With Dogs Days, he delves more into the social milieu, describing hilariously terse male-bonding rites he calls “Grunt and Grumbles,” and getting used to the pragmatism of the people he calls “real” farmers. (People who “don’t waste a bullet on a [sick] chicken” — they use an ax.) And he continues to share his ongoing personal quest to become a more patient and stoic and less angry human being. Bedlam Farm, with all of its animals and chores and potential for chaos, relies on Katz. By doing so, it brings a certain order to his life; it humbles him and helps him anchor himself in the world.

In Mark Doty’s Dog Years (Harper Collins), two Labrador retrievers also serve a therapeutic purpose, helping him position himself beyond the confines of his private despair. As a “lyric poet concerned with evanescence,” Doty has drawn a more interior, philosophical portrait than Katz. A fan of Emily Dickinson, he’s woven snippets of her poetry into his story, and the beauty of her words and imagery complements his oblique style.

Doty does not concern himself much with the corporeal. (He has two cats but leaves them out of the story.) His story is about the passage of time and the losses it brings. First, his lover deteriorates and dies; eventually he watches as his dogs — golden retriever Beau and black Lab Arden — do the same. Doty uses his memories of his dogs’ long lives — the glove eaten here, the fresh cow flop rolled in there — to measure time, what happened where, and the change it brought. The routine of owning dogs, the walking and feeding, forces him out into the restorative winter air. “With the two of them, I’m joined to something else, perception expanded, not just stuck there in the world in my own bereft, perishable, limited body. It isn’t that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to.”

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