People will sometimes lament the proliferation of memoirs and invoke as evidence of memoirists' self-indulgence the fact that some of these authors return again and again to the form. "How they do go on!" "As if they were so special." Defenders of the form should consider pointing detractors toward Lauren Slater, who has already written memoirs on epilepsy/lying, depression and pregnancy, among other personal matters, and who is back now with a book about her relationship with animals. Slater knows that a self comprises a multitude of narratives that sometimes overlap and sometimes contradict -- and that each, when masterfully rendered, can be deserving of its own book.
To appreciate how much the material in "The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals" deserves Slater's attention, the reader must be willing to overlook the title, the cover and even the author photo (featuring the titular dog) -- all of which scream of kitsch -- and turn to the words. Be assured, Lauren Slater can write. Here is some of the crispest prose you'll read -- gorgeous without being showy, informed without being pedantic, deeply loving without being the least bit sentimental.
Slater begins in childhood, when animals serve for her as an escape from her lonely and unhappy home life. One day, riding her bike through the country, she stops to feed cows and ends up sliding under the fence to nap with them. Later, she cuts a hole in the roof above her bed to look into the eye of a young raccoon that eventually becomes her pet. These uncommon relationships are not mere anecdotes, but some of the key moments in Slater's self-understanding. As she enters adulthood, her love of animals remains and becomes increasingly reflective: "We adore our pets not because they love us, but because they prove to us, day after day after day, that we love them with a purity not possible in human-to-human encounters. Our animals prove to us how capacious the human heart can be, and in doing so they give us, over and over, a great gift."
It's thrilling to watch Slater think as she moves from stories to ideas and back. Though she sometimes overreaches (as when speculating that non-animal lovers might descend from Neanderthals), her refusal to kowtow to the reader's expectations is as impressive as it is sometimes discomforting. She will alienate many readers simply by entertaining the question of whether it's possible to love your pets more than your children -- no, that should be more specific: Slater wonders whether she loves her dogs more than her children. It's the fearlessness along with the beauty that makes "The $60,000 Dog" a work of lasting achievement.
Scott F. Parker's books include "Revisited: Notes on Bob Dylan," "Running After Prefontaine" and "Coffee: Grounds for Debate." He lives in Minneapolis.