In this memoir covering more than thirty years, teacher and award-winning writer Janice Gary expertly braids together her life’s themes and experiences, focusing on her fifteen-year relationship with Barney, a stray Lab-Rottweiler that she finds in a supermarket parking lot. Barney fulfills the prediction made during his first visit to the veterinarian: he grows into a very big dog. This presents a complex problem for Gary after Barney becomes dog-aggressive as a puppy when he’s attacked by a larger dog and subsequently attacks and injures several neighborhood dogs. Gary, a trauma survivor who at fifteen years old found her father’s body after his suicide and then four years later was raped at gunpoint in a dark alley, explains how Barney’s size and power initially provide her with a sense of safety and security, although, since he outweighs and overpowers her, she’s challenged to control him when other dogs are present. The writer wins the reader’s sympathy for this life-loving dog, whose emotional wounds mirror the wounds of his owner: “We were twins, the two faces of fear walking side by side.”
After confining Barney to her house and yard for several months after he attacks a neighborhood dog, Gary begins taking Barney to the office with her, where her coworkers dote on him. Once Gary begins using a prong collar to control him, she finds the courage to start walking him in a nearby public park. Barney gives her the courage to walk unexplored trails, turn blind corners, and enter deep woods, and I felt my neck muscles tighten while reading her descriptions of holding Barney back and reversing course when another dog comes into view, when she freezes at the smell of cigarette smoke or a noise denoting the unseen presence of a possibly menacing stranger. When she and Barney encounter dogs off leash, her fear and frustration are palpable and understandable.
These daily walks in the park become a form of meditation for Gary, during which she observes nature and the changing of the seasons while pondering her life and future options. Trudging through slush and snow one day, Gary remembers the many things she’s frozen out of her life: “first dancing, then singing, then acting, then filmmaking, and finally writing.” Through these meditations, she gains clarity while pondering this line from a Mary Oliver poem that she’s taped to her notebook: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” When at age forty-eight, determined to find her voice, she applies to graduate school for an MFA in creative writing, she wrestles with fear and self-doubt—the same emotions she struggles with in the park exploring new paths and trails with Barney.
In grad school, Gary attempts to write a memoir about her years of playing punk rock music with various bands, disregarding danger and taking unwise chances with strange men, alcohol, and drugs, but her instructors insist that her writing is lifeless and stilted. As Barney ages and his health declines, his gait slows, forcing Gary to pause and experience her surroundings through the five senses, which in turn invigorates her writing. That sensory writing is the quality that makes this book special, its prose lyrical. For instance, on one walk, she sees “a shining slick of black water pooled beneath the sea oats,” hears “a weighty plunk, the splash of a toad heard but not seen,” smells stagnant water that reminds her of the odor of rotten eggs, feels a warm breeze on her face and the hard plastic dog leash handle in her hand. Exploring the world and her emotions through the senses helps her find the vocabulary for feelings long buried and helps her through the turmoil of her dog’s failing health, as well as her grief after his death. Walking in the park alone after he passes, she asks, “‘Barney, where are you?’ Perhaps he’s in the wind, in a Labrador’s breath, in the soft glow of afternoon light washing over the trees. Wherever he is, he’s still walking with me, maybe just out of sight up ahead.”
Dog lovers will enjoy reading about Barney’s playfulness, stubbornness, curiosity, and will to live, culminating in sadness at his eventual demise at the age of fifteen, finally succumbing after years of battling illness and disease. Writers will learn by example how to explore and describe the world on a sensory level. All readers will cheer for Janice Gary’s triumph over trauma, rape, and grief, as she poetically transforms her experiences to stories on the page.