Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

When I was at a writing and publishing conference this February a really nice Coach House Books employee recommended Fifteen Dogs to me and, being Canadian, promptly apologized for making me buy a book from his table which was selling books. Then he gave me a free tote bag.

I think being from Toronto might not make you a natural salesman.

From the very start, author Andre Alexis describes impossible events with intense authority: Greek gods Hermes and Apollo are getting beers at a tavern in Toronto. They wonder at the unhappiness of the humans around them. Apollo wagers that any animal, given human intelligence, would be even more unhappy than humans, and Hermes bets that they wouldn’t. To prove a point, the two gods walk into a vet’s office and grant fifteen dogs the intelligence of humans.

From here, Alexis spins out a story that is both tender and brutal. These dogs create language and poetry, mount and murder each other, befriend humans and eat garbage and commune with gods. Within this tale of dogliness is an intense meditation on what it means to be human, on the joys and pains and responsibilities of cognition, language, and understanding. Alexis’s main fascination, it seems, is with language and communication: the dogs’ newly-invented language of growls and barks and sighs evolves into puns and poetry. Alexis’s own language is elegant and spare, rarely drawing attention to itself, even in lengthy descriptions of higher consciousness or the logistics of dog poetry. But he never strays far from simple, brutal diction that fits into the mouths of hounds–a female great dane is “the bitch with the high vagina” to her packmates, and a mastiff is “the dog with the crumpled face.”

I read this whole book in one sitting at night after a full day at the writing conference because I couldn’t bring myself to stop, and since then I’ve been trying to talk everyone I know into reading it. It’s the best book I’d never heard of. And Andre Alexis’s immense talent is no secret in Canada; the book won the Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers Trust Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the 2015 Toronto Book Awards, and is Coach House Books’ bestselling release. I think it’s time for us to catch up to our neighbors from the north: read an excerpt here and buy the book today.