All dog lovers think their own pets are special and every now and then tend to go on about them a bit longer than some would care to hear.
Susan Orlean is no different. But the doted-upon canine of her latest book is not her own. It's TV star Rin Tin Tin.
Readers expecting a tale as riveting as "The Orchid Thief," Orlean's bestseller of a decade ago, will be disappointed; but perhaps that book's narrative arc is impossible to top. "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" does include plenty of interesting pockets of 20th-century history, and readers born on the early side of the baby boom will experience many pleasant flashbacks.
Rin Tin Tin (several German Shepherd Dogs bore the name and the fame over several decades) was the first real canine celebrity. When the original Rinty died in the early 1930s, radio stations across the country interrupted their broadcasts to announce it.
Rinty was discovered while working as a military dog in World War I by Lee Duncan, who became his owner and trainer. Duncan, whose mother had left him at an orphanage when he was 6 -- old enough to really feel it -- grew into an under-socialized guy who never got to see his biggest dream come true, the story of his life on film. But he could live vicariously through his star dog.
Orlean provides an inside look at the 1950s birth of modern pop-culture merchandising through the avalanche of Rinty memorabilia: "It was no longer enough for fans to watch passively -- people wanted celebrity in some form right in their pocket."
Samples of her knack for observation and description are sprinkled, although not liberally enough, throughout the book. The "aggressively irrigated lawns" of a suburb, the insight that "these days, living forever means having been enough of a material presence in the world to win a permanent place on eBay." But the story could have used more dry humor of this sort: "When he approached me in the parking lot that morning, I couldn't help but notice that he was dressed in an 1870s army uniform."
In fairness, Orlean had her work cut out for her. Aside from his tragic childhood, Duncan is simply not a compelling subject. There's only so much she can say about the dogs, but perhaps there could have been more color in the form of on-set antics and mishaps, and more examination of the often inhumane commodification of animals in Hollywood, which is addressed but not explored.
The insertion of first-person anecdotes and reactions, a trademark of Orlean's, seems out of place here, as if she's trying too hard to connect her own life to Rinty's legend. In the book's final chapter, an apparent attempt to justify the effort and time afforded her subject is unconvincing. She seems to have succumbed to the same fate as that of an obsessive hobbyist she describes earlier: "Immersing yourself in a single interest so thoroughly sometimes means that the interest stops being something you do; instead you become a servant of that interest."
Kristin Tillotson is a Star Tribune features writer.