Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations by Ira Sukrungruang is a testament to the variety of forms nonfiction writing can reach as well as this author’s mastery of each. For teachers of creative nonfiction, this text models a range of approaches; for students of CNF (whether formally enrolled or not), this is a wonderful mentor text; and for us more general readers, this is a book to expand our experience with great satisfaction.
The book is divided into four sections, opening with eight memoir essays, each connected with dogs. Sukrungruang strikes a delicate balance of ‘just enough dog’ in these works; sometimes, as I was reading, I forgot that ‘dog’ was the running theme until the character or just the idea of dog re/appeared in the story. In some, dog is the focal point, as in “The Dog Without a Bark,” “The Animatronic Dog,” and “My Dog Ginger.” In each, the author moves back and forth in time, from childhood to his adulthood, and geographically, from the United States to Thailand. Relationships with dogs and humans, and dogs as symbols for life lessons are explored through both delightful and painful memories. As a reliable narrator, Sukrungruang’s contemporary self-assessments are brutally honest, as in “My Heart. Open.” when his father reconnects with him two years after divorcing Ira’s mother. College-aged Ira takes the phone from his mother:
I knew instantly it was him.
When I heard his voice, I laughed, the way my mother laughed at inappropriate moments, like funerals, the news of her father’s terminal illness, her lost dreams. This was another something we shared. With my father on the line, I laughed when I so badly wanted to say “fuck you” in a clear, crisp voice, my consonants clicking after the first word.
Sukrungruang's voice is one which avoids sentimental/emotional cliché and instead is precisely observational, conversational, and poetic.
Unique for a CNF collection, the second section is a portfolio of six works by Trenton Doyle Hancock accompanied by corresponding essays: “On Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Self-Portraits or Two Fat Men Meet and Bump Bellies or Shut Up! I’m Eating.” There’s no preface/explanation for this section, but in 2011, Sukrungruang was a panel respondent for the University of South Florida College of the Arts colloquium, “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Narrative Practices,” so there is a longer-standing relationship between author and artist. The images are comic-style drawings focused on self- and body-image, which align with Sukrungruang’s own narratives about his relationship with food and his body. The section opens with “Mr. Mouth,” which begins:
You eat. That’s what you do. When asked what your occupation is, you do not say writer or artist. You do not say educator. You say, I am a professional eater. You say I am in the business of devouring. Sometimes you don’t know what goes in; most of the time you don’t. A professional eater is not a food critic. He does not analyze food. He does not register taste. He is continuous action. He is mouth without thought.
If asked to select lines that most succinctly represent Sukrungruang’s writing, it would be these from “Self Portrait with Tongue,” which take readers down a rabbit hole. It’s a teacher’s conversation with a student as they look at Hancock’s image (similarly titled) and attempt to write about it:
Teacher says: Look at Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Self Portrait with Tongue.” What do you see?
I say: A man with a tongue. And nipples.
Teacher says: What is the story?
I say: Is that what you want? A story?
Teacher says: I want what you want. I want you to dig. How do you view yourself? What image do you project? What image do you keep hiding? We are made of hundreds of versions of ourselves. Sometimes we are gluttonous globs. Sometimes we are the superhero atop a white tiger. Sometimes we are a desire and a rage. Sometimes we are buff. Sometimes we exist in a realm no one understands. Excavate that.
I say: This isn’t gonna be easy.
Teacher says: It’s not meant to be.
Nothing Sukrungruang writes is easy, even if it seems like an “easy-reading” reminiscence. There is humor at times, like “Twitch, Blink, Shiver” where sophomore-aged Ira is dared into kissing a windowpane behind which sits a porcelain doll. But there are also the underlying struggles and the shadows of his religion, his parents and their issues (“Secret,” which opens: “My father had a porno collection.”), his constant battle with food and his own body image, and his experiences with migraines (“A Mediation on Pain”) and depression (“Atlas, Don’t Let Me Down”).
The third and fourth sections of the book include several essays presenting a variety of approaches to nonfiction. The most obscure and challenging (and a great satisfaction to read): “A Sequence of Thoughts Without Any Kind of Order,” is a complete departure in style from all the others in this volume; it is exactly what the title says: while each segment is numbered, the numbers are not sequential.
The remaining works move, in Sukrungruang’s inimitable style, back and forth from his childhood up through his adult experiences in a perpetually tethered timeline. One story in particular, “Fattest, Ugliest, Weirdest,” is a truly discomforting recollection of freshman year bullying as Ira and his classmates go after the new kid, Paul. Young Ira, who until Paul’s arrival had been the fattest among his peers, explains:
I took a liking to Paul for the same reason anyone takes a liking to another beneath his or her social status. I liked him because I wasn’t him. Because now, there was a bigger person, a person who made loud breathing noises, a person whose eyes seemed closed because his cheeks looked like two pink saddlebags. Not only did Paul take over Fattest, but he was also top on the lists of Ugliest and Weirdest.
Paul’s inability to stay awake even when being directly addressed makes it difficult for Ira to continue his sympathies and makes Paul a target for further ostracization. When the day comes that Paul is being physically abused by his classmates, it’s inevitable that Ira caves to his friend’s urging to participate in attacking Paul (threatening Ira if he doesn’t). Even more discomforting is when the author relates running into Paul some years later. Their exchange is painfully normal with no reconciliation for their past, as if it had never happened, as if people really do accept that “it’s just what kids do” and move on with their lives. Later, when Ira tells his friends he saw Paul and they ask, “‘What did he look like?’ [. . . ] ‘Was he still a tub?’” Ira “smiled and said Paul looked like a million bucks, like the king of the world.” And somehow, that sets it all right.
Following this writer through numerous publications, it’s comforting to see Sukrungruang maturing into, settling into, and finally being much of what he has struggled to accept. In Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations, Sukrungruang shares his continued efforts to sort through his past and his present, but there is a clear sense that he has greater recognition and control over those aspects that make him who he is. As a strong work of memoir/CNF, closing the final page of this book leaves the reader with a sense of appreciation for all the author endures, embraces, and shares.