In this age of the self-published e-book and the ever cheapening vanity press, there’s a luster about any title released in hardcover from an established publisher. Pick up a well-designed book from, say, Algonquin, and you expect a level of storytelling that dramatically exceeds the norm, a plot with a pleasant thrum of tension, and a cohesive narrative that justifies your investment of time and money.
On all these, Comet’s Tale spectacularly fails to deliver. In fact, what looks to be a feel-good, uplifting, expertly told story is so bad in places that I was tempted to commit random acts of violence, such as winging a lamp with this book. It should have been good. Steven Wolf’s experience of adopting a greyhound on whim, in the middle of a crippling period of spinal degeneration, is a credible hook, and the dog, Comet, is perhaps the most winsome animal character to come along since Winnie the Pooh.
But if the dog is as intelligent and wise as Wolf makes her out to be, he should have let Comet pen the book. Then, we could forgive its failings, write them off to the difficulties of interspecies translation. As it is, we have only human beings to blame for lines such as, “Her long tail slapped down between her legs, and she glared at me in astonishment.”
“Astonishment” and “glare” don’t mix any more than oil and water. Or Wolf and Padwa, I should say. But the authors love the word “glare” and it appears copiously, to the point of distraction, throughout the book.
A whole lot of glaring goes on, much of it between the author and his wife, Freddie, a Frenchwoman who should have stuck with Frederique. Freddie likes to call her husband “Wolfie,” an ill-fitting endearment, and too much information, given that we’re talking about not Eddie Van Halen’s son but a middle- to past-middle-aged lawyer who was fired from his firm and now spends much of his time lying on the couch in back pain while a dog gazes at him adoringly.
But it’s Freddie this, and Wolfie that, like some kind of Stephen Sondheim musical, and we really don’t want to be in this love story, particularly since Freddie comes across as kind of a jerk, prone to talking to her pain-riddled husband in fits of foul sarcasm, and then walks out on him toward the end of the book.
When the marriage threatens to implode, we don’t really care and, in fact, are pulling for Wolf to dump this shrew and re-marry his first wife, the mother of his two girls. The caustic Freddie makes Cinderella’s stepmother look like June Cleaver. When Wolf is living alone in Sedona, Ariz. — separated from his family because the Nebraska cold makes his back worse, and neither the girls nor his wife can be inconvenienced to help their agonized husband and father by moving — we are open-mouthed at the familial neglect, so much so that we would forget all about the dog, except that it’s the dog who’s having to provide all of the author’s care.
When Wolf collapses from a bout of food poisoning, Comet is there. When Wolf falls and breaks a rib and lies prone for 12 hours without help, Comet is there. In the end, it’s Comet who loves, honors and protects, and at the end of this book, you’ll forget all about same-sex vows and be howling for the immediate institution of interspecies marriage.
The greyhound, Comet, is amazing. She deserves a book. But she didn’t deserve this book. There are two reasons to buy it: If you’re thinking about adopting a greyhound, or if you drive a car with a “Who rescued who?” bumpersticker on it. Otherwise, if you want an uplifting animal tale, read anything by Jon Katz, or Stacey O’Brien’s Wesley the Owl.
O’Brien had the good sense not to write her story until after Wesley had passed. Comet is still alive, and while I don’t wish anyone dead, her continued existence seems yet another flaw in the book. It’s an unfinished tale. At the ripe old age of 14, Comet presumably won’t live much longer, and some editor should have suggested to hold off on publication for a few years and see how this story plays out. And, for that matter, if ol’ Wolfie and Freddie are still married. Those are odds that wouldn’t look so good at the nearest greyhound track. C- — Jennifer Graham