Greek gods Apollo and Hermes are enjoying an end-of-day drink at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto when the subject of humans comes up (what else would they talk about?). Apollo claims that, if you were to give animals human intelligence and language, they would be unhappy. But, Hermes disagrees. A wager is made for one year of servitude. They happen to be near a veterinary clinic with 15 dogs, and they bestow them with human language and intelligence. Only one of the fifteen has to die happy for Hermes to win the wager.
The dogs gradually begin to have unnatural thoughts. Rosie the German Shepherd becomes melancholy when she realizes she doesn’t know where all the pups she had birthed are. Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff, is having his normal dream about chasing rabbits and squirrels. But, when he bites down on his prey’s neck, he realizes that the creature must feel pain – it awakens him. With their new intelligence, they are able to figure out how to open the gates and escape the clinic. Three dogs are too scared to leave, but the dozen others head to the lake shore.
The first few days are consumed with vying for hierarchical order. It used to be simply based on power and strength. Now they can question conclusions. They begin to realize their ability to be introspective, to problem solve, and as their language develops, the ability to communicate abstract ideas.
Not all are pleased with their new abilities. Atticus, the deemed leader, says, “We must learn to be dogs again”. Those that don’t forgo their new ways will be killed. Two of the dogs escape: Majnoun, a black poodle and Prince, a mutt.
The story follows Majnoun, who is taken in by a couple, Nira and Miguel. He becomes particularly close to Nira and develops the ability to understand and eventually speak English.
Prince revels in his new-found talents and becomes a poet. Throughout the book, we see evidence of Prince’s creations. They are a special kind of poem – a “poem for a dog.” That is, in each poem the name of a dog will be audible – to the listener or the dog – if the poem is said aloud, though the name is not legible. The example is a poem for a dog named “Flush.” Buried in the lines of the poem are the words “rough, luscious,” and, between those two words, the dog can hear his name “Flush.” There are fifteen poems in the book – each containing the audible name of a dog.
You will need to read the book to see who eventually wins the wager – no spoiler here. The real insight of this novel is not what it says about dogs, but what it says about being human. It is difficult to turn off our language and intelligence that is always running in the background – plotting, scheming, assessing, complaining, worrying, regretting – we fail to see and appreciate the present moment and thereby sacrifice happiness. Dogs are always in the present moment and that is probably why we want them around – as a refuge from the clattering in our mind.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 1. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, February 1 for a discussion of “Fifteen Dogs” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.