I have a dog (my first) and like all good, over-excited, enthusiastic first-time parents, when I got it I had every intention of reading every single goddamned book on the topic. Marley & Me by John Grogan was the next on a long and ever-expanding list. It had been on the bestseller lists for quite a long time and so I was expecting it to be a light, enjoyable read. The kind palatable to the masses and easily read between Mitch Albom and Nicholas Sparks.
With “Marley & Me,” I was expecting a dog book, a man’s book. I mean, right on the cover is a picture of a cute little puppy looking up at the camera with innocent, loving eyes and a subtitle reading, “Life And Love With The World’s Worst dog.” So I was expecting a book about a man and his dog.
What I got was a book about marriage and babies, two things that gross me out. Two things that my feelings about rank somewhere between ironing shirts and slamming my penis in a sliding door.
That being said, this book is very, very good. By page thirty-two, my eyes were welling with tears. The book actually ended up being a relatively slow read because I had to stop every other paragraph to lift weights, drink beer at a strip club, and watch kung fu movies in my underwear while eating a bowl of cereal for dinner. You see, “Marley & Me” is not a story about a man and his dog. “Marley & Me” is the story of a young married couple that adopts a dog. Like all good characters in good stories, this particular dog is not perfect. In fact, it’s an outrage. Marley is a barking, drooling, rampaging, gnawing, destroying, pillaging Viking of a dog. His energy is endless. He is kicked out of obedience school. He eats expensive necklaces. He rips apart furniture. He destroys an entire garage. He transforms into a howling terror of a werewolf during thunderstorms. He never stops. He is always moving, his frenetic tail constantly wagging and tipping over anything in its oscillating path.
With Marley’s hyperactive and destructive back story carefully laid out, it is an emotional scene when the couple gets pregnant, only to lose the baby in the first trimester, and the mom comes home to be comforted by the surprisingly now-calm Marley with his big head on her lap and his still, patient body consolingly at her side. I am a non-breeder and when reading this scene I was an absolute mess. I was a thirteen-year-old girl saying goodbye to her friends at the end of summer camp. I was a mother at her daughter’s wedding ceremony. I was the girlfriend who didn’t get anything from her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. I was Meryl Streep in a Meryl Streep movie: weepy and distraught. Grogan poignantly balances the humor, stress, and satisfaction of pet ownership with a young wife as they transition into parenthood. His story is a pleasure to read in its effortless weaving of funny anecdotes, emotional growth, and the changing priorities that come with parenthood, all with an amusing animal for comic relief. Hollywood could not have done better.
The Grogans get pregnant again and their birth story is one of the more interesting ones I have heard (again, I’m a non-breeder so hearing this kind of schmaltzy crap usually bores me to tears. Why do you tell me this stuff? What do you want me to say, “Congratulations, you successfully carried out a maneuver that baboons accomplish every goddamned day, but with less fanfare, books, websites, and talking?”) But the Grogan’s story is quite remarkable as it offers a unique window into the child birthing methods of America. Before the birth, they reserve and pay extra for an upgraded, special birthing suite. When the big day arrives, however, they arrive at the hospital to learn that all of these suites are full. “We can’t control when women go into labor,” a nurse tells them. Not only that, however, but all of the “normal” labor and delivery rooms are full as well. A few phone calls, some scrambling, and they are led into a completely different part of the hospital. The room they are put in is bare and unadorned, lacking the floral curtains, pastel pillows, and cushy couch for dad that they had expected from their pre-natal tour.
The section they are in is for the poorer, mostly immigrant population of their southern Florida community. Seeing their dismay and concern, the Grogan’s doctor assures them that since the poor typically cannot afford prenatal care, they tend to have higher-risk pregnancies so their room was actually equipped with more specialized tools and instruments to prepare for these higher-risk deliveries. Also, these poorer immigrants cannot afford the expensive, pain-relieving epidurals that have become such a common part of births in America, so throughout their entire birth the Grogan’s are treated to the un-drugged screams and painful yelps of their impoverished neighbors. As a non-breeder and a bleeding heart liberal, all of this was thoroughly, thoroughly fascinating. Who would have thought? I open a book looking for a Jack London-esque dog story and get a socio-economic examination of the United States. Ah, books! And to think there’s more to this world than the news and current events I was getting from my usual two sources: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and my pot dealer.
From there, the story meanders down a gently twisting road into an enjoyable story of an American family, complete with happiness and sadness, disappointment and success, children and pet, jobs and vacations. The Grogans get pregnant again and with this baby mom goes into labor months too soon and is relegated to strict bed-rest to prevent a premature birth. A healthy baby boy is finally born at the same hospital and the day after Donald Trump’s baby. Afterwards, mom battles severe post-partum depression and demands that Marley be given away. At this point in the book, I remember silently chanting my encouragements to the narrator to “Get rid of the wife! Keep the dog! Keep the dog!” Ultimately, there was no need for such drastic measures, it’s too good and perfect of a story for tragedy. This story is one where wives and misbehaving dogs learn to live in harmony. There is the birth of a third kid (a girl!), a new job and move to Pennsylvania (complete with dog bellowing from the belly of the plane, serenading all un-amused passengers as his owners play dumb, feigning ignorance and similar disgust at such an obnoxious beast).
And through all of this idyllic American family’s adventure and change, Marley is there, though growing ever older. Marley of course eventually trots into the sunset and my tears were plinking down on the pages the whole way, Grogan tugging every one of my heartstrings. Since I have gotten a dog, I have often remarked that they make great starter-kids. In fact, I have often wondered why parents bother upgrading to human children given that dogs are expensive, entertaining, time-consuming, and very rewarding.
Now I know. Dogs die. We need something that will stick around a bit longer and wipe our ass.