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Doggone Good Stories About Man’s Best Friend

Author Mindy Friddle describes dogs as “the ultimate yes men.” Padgett Powell agrees: “A dog is the only friend you can have in life,” he writes, “who will go with you wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go, without question and without putting on his pants.”

In a similar spirit of unconditional enthusiasm, it’s a pleasure to recommend two recent books that share a common theme: The dogs in these stories may not be the prettiest or the nicest dogs on the block, but that’s not the point. It’s how they touch their owners’ lives that’s important.

In Stray Decorum: Stories, South Carolina writer George Singleton skewers human behavior through 11 linked stories about dogs and their owners that stop miles short of cuddly: a man’s trip to the vet for his dog’s overdue shots turns into a blind date with a woman convinced she’s micro-chipped by the government; an elderly dog’s loss of appetite is solved by the reappearance of her master’s long-lost brother; a humane society worker who stalks pit bull rescuers contemplates surprising his ex-girlfriend on her honeymoon dressed in a bear suit.

Most of the dogs we meet are strays: Tapeworm Johnson, now 12, turned up one day, “her ribs as visible as anything you’d order” at the local barbecue joint. “Sharon” was “one of those dogs … who just show up a few months after Christmas because some kid wanted a puppy” they couldn’t take care of. Some are the remembered dogs of childhood; some exist only as a noisy pack tucked away in the backyard.

But all are the reason we get to peer closely at their owners’ lives, and the best of these stories draw us in with the goofy, magnetic appeal of that one dog at the pound whose face we can’t resist.

By contrast with their dignified pets, Singleton’s humans — the majority of them maladjusted, divorced men — are snappy, territorial, paranoid and reeling from abandonment issues, more traumatized and fearful than rescue dogs. They sniff around each other and the occasional women who can tolerate them, congregating in bars for fellowship and advice, in urgent need of emotional protection and sometimes, like the strays they collect, a new identity.

None are worse than the fathers of these damaged sons. Though Singleton takes the edge off their sins with cackling humor, they come off as especially rotten, teasing and conning their kids relentlessly when they’re not too drunk to bother.

We recognize them as bad owners, the kind most strays would run from if they had the chance.

But how can you hold a grudge against a dad desperate enough to drink the wine from three dozen bottles of pickled herring, “the jars sucked dry, the fillets standing on edge in their containers”? Like James Thurber, another dog lover, once said, “humor is emotional chaos rekindled in tranquility.” Singleton has perfected the art in these wickedly funny lessons about how to forgive and move on — with any luck, to a kinder, better owner.

Writers love dogs for different reasons than the rest of us do, claims the back cover of Literary Dogs and Their South Carolina Writers, edited by John Lane and Betsy Wakefield Teter.

Ron Rash, for instance, warmed up to his teenage daughter’s belligerent mutt as soon as it bit her first date. Tommy Hays and his family were determined to keep their family dog even after she stalked and attacked two smaller dogs. Looking at her father through the lens of his love for two beloved pets helped poet Glenis Redmond feel closer to her distant dad.

In these 25 stories by authors including Josephine Humphries, Padgett Powell, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Alice Monroe, and yes, George Singleton, memorable doesn’t always mean nice or good, much less well-behaved.

The reasons these writers give for celebrating their sweet-tempered and sensitive dogs are just as persuasive as the ones they offer for applauding the biters, the chronic barkers and escapees and even a feral family that allowed only “a cautious, touchless intimacy.”

Humphries sets the tone with a story about the dog she got after losing her mother and watching her father struggle with Alzheimer’s. A rescue dog named Archie, his fits of “canine ecstasy” not only cheered everyone, but even slowed the progress of her father’s disease. “Somehow we were lifted by this dog’s joy.” Powell explains that his beloved pit bull wasn’t mean — just doing his job.

“Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it.” But he was also “the bright furry diamond” in Powell’s life, who set an example of fearlessness and gratitude.

While telling the story of how a pet psychic helped his family rehabilitate the initially gentle “part chow, part wolf” Emily after she inexplicably began to prey on other dogs, Hays slips in another, unexpected one about his daughter that explains why Emily’s “life force,” however wild, was so important to them.

As it turns out, writers love their dogs for exactly the same reasons everyone else does: because they’re irresistibly incorrigible, because they grin, because they chew everything in sight, they help aging parents cope with loneliness and a dozen other reasons.

“Dogs are grump antidotes,” says Mindy Friddle, writing of her dog Otto, adopted from the Humane Society, who “leads with the brisk, no-nonsense stride of a hedge fund manager” on walks.

He has taught her the finer points of life, including how to “brush off life’s indignities” (tooth brushing, being shaved for summer) and “express joy for no reason” (circling the yard in a mad dash of happiness, disemboweling toys, chasing squirrels).

Literary Dogs and Their South Carolina Writers is guaranteed to have a similar effect.