Words the Dog Knows
J. R. Carpenter's long-awaited first novel Words the Dog Knows follows the criss-crossing 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. Travelling 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, he 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. Carpenter writes with humour and directness, melding the emotional precision of her award-winning short fiction with the narrative ingenuity of her pioneering works in electronic literature. The result is a fresh and accessible first novel written and illustrated in the vernacular of the neighbourhood where cooking smells, noisy neighbours and laundry lines criss-cross the alleyway one sentence at a time. Words the Dog Knows is a story because of a dog. Walking though the same back alleyways day after day, Theo and Simone come to see their neighbourhood -- and each other -- in a whole new way. This is our back alley. This is a walk we walk everyday. It's a long block. Five minutes from bottom to top. Six if you walk slowly. Seven if you walk as if intent on studying everyscent. Eight-and-a-half years if you're sniffing for stories. We take other walks besides this one, but let's say we don't. Let's say our dog walks us up and down this alleyway three times a day. That's eight-and-a-half years of up and eight-and-a-half years of down. Nine thousand three hundred laps of toenails clicking on cracked concrete. Trail zigzagging, long tail wagging, long tongue lolling, dog tags clacking. Ears open, eyes darting, nose to the ground. Our dog is medium, that's what the alley kids say. He's a medium dog with an orange ball. Maybe you've met him. He knows people that we don't. Once we overheard a man at a dinner party talking about The Dog with the Orange Ball. We said: That's our dog He said: That's Crazy He's never even seen our dog, but his daughter knows the sound of our dog's dog tags. He lifts her up so she can watch The Dog with the Orange Ball running up the alley. We've since glimpsed her pixie head peeking over their high fence. To you our newest not-yet neighbours, in response to the letter you left in every mailbox on our block: Yes, of course, we understand that there will be some noise -- we might have bought the place ourselves had it not needed so many renovations. Your note didn't mention that there'd be trucks blocking the alleyway for four months. We sit in our kitchen and listen to your contractors cursing in between bursts of jackhammer and bandsaw and we mourn the passing of what used to be. Your back fence used to have an ancient wooden door in it, sagging blue -- askew amidst a retinue of vines clinging to crumbing cinderblocks guarding an oasis of lazy brown-eyed-Susans. Now there's a backhoe clawing after a basement. The first time wemet you the ground was still frozen. In the back alley by the blue door you threw a stick for our dog and told us how you'd decided to buy the place: We are in love with the garden, you said. Every day when we walk the dog through the mud from the hole you've dug we remember this story.
Montreal : Conundrum Press, 2008.
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