J. R. Carpenter’s long-awaited first novel Words the Dog Knows follows the crisscrossing paths of a quirky cast of characters through the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Simone couldn’t wait to get out of rural Nova Scotia. In Montreal she buries her head in books about far off places.
Her best friend Julie gets her a job in the corporate world. Traveling for business cures Simone of her restlessness.
One summer Julie’s dog Mingus introduces Simone to Theo. They move in together. Theo is a man of few words. Until he and Simone get a dog, that is.
They set about training Isaac the Wonder Dog to: sit, come, stay. Meanwhile, Isaac the dog has fifty girlfriends to keep track of and a master plan for the rearrangement of every stick in every alleyway in Mile End. He introduces Theo and Simone to their neighbours. He trains them to see the jumbled intimacy of Mile End’s back alleyways with the immediacy of a dog’s-eye-view.
Words the Dog Knows isn’t a story about a dog. It’s a story because of a dog.
I never had a dog as a kid, which is surprising considering I grew up on a farm. We had every other kind of animal. Ninety head of cattle to keep the one bull busy. A pen of pigs to keep the one we’d eat company. A roost of free-range chickens run ragged by a mean white rooster. A hutch of show rabbits not good for much of anything. And thirty-five hives of honeybees – white wooden worlds unto themselves – each one run by a queen.
I had a housecat named Feather of the Fairies. Children below a certain age should not be granted the power to name. The barn had its own cats. They kept their own company, lived according to laws unknown to us, and came and went and fed and bred and killed in anonymity.
We had a horse named Red, even though he was brown. Red decided how fast or slow he’d go by the weight of his rider. The heavier you were the faster he went. My mother was barely five feet tall. But according to Red she weighed plenty. No sooner was she settled in the saddle than he was off and running. Splashing through the shallows of the cattle pond, up the slope to the rock wall, along its length to the northwest fence, and down again for a victory lap around the first pasture. Unable to rein in his canter, my mother did her best to avoid Red altogether.
My father was six-foot-two at least, and solid as a cast-iron skillet. He rode Red to a froth. The two of them lived for round-up. There were other dairy farms nearby, much larger than ours. Most ran round-up with dogs. On our stretch of the Sloane Road alone there must have been fifteen herding and hunting dogs. And that’s not counting over at the Doyle place where they kept a pack of sled dogs, twenty-four or more, chained all seasons. Their howled chorus blew our way on the same south-easterlies that made the power lines whine. It’s not that I wanted a dog. It’s that I was surrounded by something that was missing.
Image: One Bark at a Time