I tend to start my judgment of a book on two points: how long it takes to finish reading, and the opening line. I read all 171 pages of Fifteen Dogs in two days, and its opening line is great: “One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.” A crisp sentence that puts two of our favourite gods in Toronto’s oldest tavern sets the stage for an engrossing modern myth.
Apollo and Hermes have a friendly argument about whether or not humans are very special, as far as mortals go. Hermes thinks we are. Apollo not so much. In the course of the evening, after five Sleemans each, they make a bet.
Apollo wagers “that animals–any animal you chose–would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” Hermes takes the bet, “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.” On the way home, walking down King Street, they pass a veterinarian clinic. The fifteen dogs staying overnight receive human intelligence, and quickly figure out how to open their cages and escape.
The story is enticing. Each of the fifteen dogs has to negotiate their relationship with the sudden intelligence they have been given. Like the classic myths, Fifteen Dogs can be dark and violent. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend the book to dog lovers per se. It’s an apologue (a moral fable with an animal cast), not one of those tender tales of human-animal bonding. Fifteen Dogs is probably best suited to people interested in Toronto, classical mythology, and those nagging existential questions of humanity.
Like any good fantasy novel, there are maps in the beginning. The setting is integral. The dogs leave the vet’s clinic as if through a portal and the Toronto they emerge into is charged with the fantastic. My apartment is just a couple blocks from High Park, where much of the story takes place. Walks downs Roncesvalles and along the beach will be different, having gotten a dog’s-eye view of it. Or rather, a dog’s-nose view, because some of the most evocative moments are olfactory scenes of the beach in summer and the park in spring. If you’re from Toronto, Fifteen Dogs might enrich your city. I mean, who wouldn’t want a drink where Hermes and Apollo frequent?
The gods are Greek, thus capricious, unpredictable, and often distant. They aren’t in the business of making everything alright in the end and don’t have a habit of saving people. The gods in Fifteen Dogs are the same ones who pestered Odysseus and brought down Troy. The novel may not be The Iliad, but it fits nicely in the lineage.
Some books tell a good story, some explore big ideas. Fifteen Dogs manages both. Despite the initiating wager, the real interest of the book is not the pros and cons of human intelligence. “Really, it was a matter of pure chance who died happy and who did not. Which is why, of course, [Apollo] and Hermes had bet on the outcome in the first place.” The bet sets up a more subtle philosophical discussion. Now, if you don’t care for philosophical discussion, don’t let that push you off. The story stands on its own and the philosophy doesn’t get in the way. But if you’re up for it, the dogs have to deal with questions like:
- What happens when you recognize the cruelty in the activities you love?
- What happens when you realize something you love cannot last?
- What happens when you recognize the gulf between yours ideas and your actions?
- What happens when you chance so much you can’t remember who the real you is?
- And on it goes.
In short, Fifteen Dogs is about fifteen dogs who become humanly reasonable one night, and they handle it just as well and poorly as the rest of us do. But since they’re dogs and live in a very realistic Toronto, we are able to see the humanity in them a little clearer than we tend to see it in ourselves. The book grabbed my attention from the very beginning, and it held on until the end like I was a chew toy. It explores deep human truths without getting preachy and brings an authentic sense of Greek myth into a very local-feeling Toronto. I heartily recommend it to anyone who didn’t cry during Marley & Me.