A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog
By Dean Koontz
(Hyperion, 288 pages, $24.99)
A Big Little Life is more than just a funny and poignant memoir of a couple's joyful experience with an exceptional dog, though it's a delightful read on this level alone. It's also an exploration of how a serious and successful writer came to better understand the gift and meaning of life, and had his sense of wonder restored, with the help of a golden retriever named Trixie.
Little Life, Dean Koontz's first nonfiction book, is an unusually effective brief for the joy that dogs bring us, though many TAS readers, including me, need no convincing on this point. For dog people there will be pleasurable jolts of recognition as Koontz describes how Trixie always knew what the destination was on car rides, how she was an excellent judge of character, how she learned the meaning of a host of words (a favorite being "nacho"), and how a fundamentally gentle dog faced down a much larger Rottweiler who, it turns out, was all bark and growl. Trixie never warned that Timmy had fallen down a well, but she did warn of a fire in the Koontz oven before it got out of hand.
Koontz identifies for us many of the reasons dogs charm us: their innocence, their ability to live in the present, and their unfailing love for us, even when we don't deserve it.
Too many of us die without knowing transcendent joy, in part because we pursue one form or another of materialism. We seek meaning in possessions, in pursuit of cosmic justice for earthly grievances, in the acquisition of power over others. On the other hand, dogs eat with gusto, play with exuberance, work happily when given the opportunity, surrender themselves to the wonder and mystery of their world, and love extravagantly.
What's not to like about that?
Dean and Gerda Koontz, high school sweethearts who married in college, were enjoying successful and orderly lives in Southern California before they decided to risk their somewhat neat-nik home and workaholic schedules by adding a dog to their lives. Both had always liked dogs, and Dean had included dogs in some of his novels. Midnight, the first Koontz thriller to hit number one on the bestseller list in 1989 featured a helper dog named Moose. The popular Watchers of 1987 featured Einstein, the smartest dog any of us are likely to encounter. But chez Koontz had been dog-free until Trixie entered the picture in 1998.
Trixie, three years old at the time of her adoption, was a rescue dog, but with a difference. She had been trained by Canine Companions for Independence, a worthy non-profit that trains dogs to help disabled people with a host of life's difficulties. Dean stumbled across CCI while doing research for Midnight, and has been a supporter of the organization ever since. After the long and rigorous CCI training, Trixie worked with a young woman named Jenna who had lost her legs in an auto accident. But because of an elbow injury (who knew dogs had elbows?), Trixie was forced into early retirement and pethood.
From 1998 until Trixie's premature death in 2007 due to cancer at age 12 (a portion of the book some readers may wish to negotiate with the aid of Kleenex), Trixie taught Koontz a number of things. He became convinced that because of her intelligence and her unblemished innocence that Trixie (and by extension other dogs) not only had a soul, but probably one unblemished in comparison to that of most people. (Theologians may dispute this, but having recently had to put our aged and beloved German short-haired pointer, Easy, to sleep, Koontz will get no argument from my wife or me.) She also taught Koontz to be more attuned to available joy, and "to be filled with gratitude for every grace we receive."
Through this tribute to his dog, readers will learn more about Dean Koontz the writer, and why, thanks at least partly to Trixie, his recent novels are more full of humor and wonder and assurance that life indeed has meaning than his work had been before (not that he had previously been a Grinch). Trixie even fortified Koontz in his faith.
I believe that Trixie, in addition to being a dog and a child and an inspiration and a revelation, was also a quiet theophany, a subtle manifestation of God, for by her innocent joy and by her actions in my life, she lifted me from all doubts of the sacred nature of our existence.
Koontz is one of the few writers of popular fiction today who tells his stories from a conservative point of view. (And he's very popular -- his 400 million in book sales put him in a sales league with J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Louis L'Amour, and other publishing giants.) There are no sermons or political speeches in Koontz's novels, but it's clear enough in his stories that life has meaning as well as important choices between good and evil. In Koontz's fictional world there are things worth fighting for, things worth loving, and a lot worth laughing about.
Clearly a sixty-pound golden retriever played a role in lightening the heart and sharpening the view of an already acute observer of the human parade. Readers of A Big Little Life will see how this took place, and will learn a good deal about two people and a dog well worth knowing.
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