The Dogs of Babel
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Published by Little, Brown
336 pages, 2003
Unleash the Hounds of Grief
Reviewed by David Abrams
Before he invented the telephone, legend has it that Alexander Graham Bell taught his dog to talk. By massaging his Skye Terrier's vocal chords, Bell could get him to growl the words "How are you, Grandmamma?" Sure, it came out sounding like "Ow ah oo ga ma ma," but you know how legends go.
In Carolyn Parkhurst's first novel The Dogs of Babel, Paul Iverson hopes to repeat Bell's success. This is no amusing parlor trick for the university linguistics professor, however; he's teaching his dog Lorelei to form vowels and consonants in hopes she'll clear up the mystery surrounding the recent death of Paul's wife. Lorelei was the only witness to Lexy's fatal fall from a tree in their backyard and somewhere buried in the spongy folds of that doggy brain lie the answers to so many questions.
Paul just wants some resolution to his crippling grief and to solve the riddle of why his beautiful wife would climb their 30-foot apple tree in the middle of the day and either lose her footing or purposely jump to her death. If his Rhodesian Ridgeback hound could talk, what would she tell him about Lexy's final moments? Hopefully, something more reassuring than "ow ah oo ga ma ma."
The Dogs of Babel is less a mystery than it is a love story. As he wanders through his now-empty house, Paul looks for clues Lexy might have left for him. Certainly, some things seem out of place -- books rearranged on the shelf, a steak bone in the corner of their bedroom which Lexy evidently gave to Lorelei that afternoon, a strange phone call showing up on his bill. As Paul drifts through the fog of mourning, Parkhurst weaves in flashbacks to the first time Paul and Lexy met (at a garage sale), their first date (a week-long trip to Disney World), and their rosy first days as a married couple.
Like the widower himself, the novel seems most comfortable when it's dwelling on the past. With only a few exceptions (when the prose gets as thick and tacky as spilled syrup), the extended flashback chapters are the strongest pages of the novel -- perhaps because Lexy herself is such a vital, volatile character (Paul is wallpaste by comparison). She's a tormented artist: an imaginative crafter of masks one minute, a wailing psychotic the next as she rampages through her workroom and smashes her intricate creations. As the book unfolds, we start to see clues to Lexy's true character seeping through her pores in hot flashes of irrational anger. Paul's too blinded by love to catch the warning signs but because we already know Lexy has taken a dive from the top of a tree, we pick up the signals -- her predilection for All Things Death, for instance -- and record them in our book of evidence. Still, there's something compelling about the woman and it seems Parkhurst is as deeply in love with her as is Paul -- and eventually we readers.
There are moments in the book when throats will be lumped, not just from sorrow but from the joy of romance. The love Paul feels for Lexy is sometimes so palpable it makes you ache with the ache of your own first love when everything was possible and your bones grew and your skin stretched just to meet the space of your heart.
Then there are other times when the emotion is so overwrought it curdles on the page like cheese gone bad overnight. Parkhurst is no longer in control of the narrative and the words run amok like bad soap opera dialogue. There's one scene where Paul and Lexy wear masks of each other's faces and it all becomes a bit silly and trite as we're unnecessarily sledgehammered with symbolism.
At one point, The Dogs of Babel takes a weird detour into science-fiction territory as Paul gets involved with an ominous cult of men who are also trying to create talking dogs -- through surgery, rather than patient instruction like Paul's. The bizarre subplot, reminiscent of Kirsten Bakis' 1997 novel Lives of the Monster Dogs, is awkwardly stuck in the last third of the book, but thankfully only lasts for about 40 clumsy pages. The novel then returns to where it belongs -- the luminous love story and piercing dissection of one husband's grief.
The Dogs of Babel begins with a detached, clinical tone (Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death), but it soon becomes a diary of Paul's emotions. By the final pages, he's reaching deep inside with a flashlight and rooting out his guilt and regret:
What did I do and what did I neglect to do? How did I fail her? How many different ways? In what way am I to blame -- I know I must be, the problem is figuring out the details of my failure.
In spite of the novel's problems, it redeems itself with a climax that's both elegiac and life-affirming. You'll feel the joy and the sorrow all the way down to your lovely bones. | September 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.