Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield is an amusing, but ultimately melancholy book about a town of privileged people, so privileged the town is on the Wall Street Journal’s list of “Twenty Best Places to Live in America.” It is a town so privileged that Dr. Clarice Watkins, a tenured sociologist from Chicago decides to spend time there as a visiting scholar while studying the townspeople to see how they responded to global destabilization.
Dr. Watkins and the baker at The Forge, a favorite local eatery, are the two people of color in this book. Watkins, an African American who wears caftans and turbans and Ahmed, a Pakistani student, reveal the casual and ignorant racism of the people in town. One woman, inviting Dr. Watkins to a potluck, mentions how much she loves tribal cooking. Everyone assumes as a black woman from Chicago, she must know the Obamas. Ahmed is harassed constantly by the police, so much so he buys an electric razor to shave off his beard and is arrested on suspicion of shoplifting when he tries to return it. Dr. Watkins is able to observe the people of Littlefield keenly without resistance because they are so self-absorbed they never asked her why she was there.
The town is full of these self-obsessed comfortable people who from the outside would seem to have no problems. But of course, they have problems. Margaret, the center of the novel, is in a dying marriage and is engulfed in fears. Her husband is feeling allergic to his wife and her daughter is at that angst-ridden age when parents are both refuge and agents of humiliation and embarrassment. There’s a local author named George whose wife has run off, in love with her massage therapist. A couple of local therapists, married with children, whose children seem to mark them as failures in parenting.
To add to the mix, the town is divided by controversy over a local park and whether there should be off-leash hours for dogs. Dog-lovers and dog-haters are terribly worked up. One dog-hater hilariously argued for more restrictions on dogs since they don’t even pay taxes. Adding to the unease, someone begins poisoning the dogs of Littlefield. Suspicion is in the air and the town is restive. There is a bit of a mystery.
I enjoyed Berne’s wit, often very mordant and sly. This book made me smile more than once. I also loved the lush, emotionally evocative prose descriptions of the landscape, the skies, and the snow. The sense of place was solid and easy to visualize. I also enjoyed the characterizations of the people, some of the summed up with Austen-like wit and brevity. However, the novel was uneven and the plot was sparse. The mystery element is a complete red-herring and really nothing to do with the story at all. The lurking menace of the back cover copy was not a mystery, nor was it a menace. It was just a mess. The normal mess of life.
I enjoyed The Dogs if Littlefield, but far less than I would expect to considering the quality of the prose and the diamond sharp wit that normally entices me as a reader. It has all this potential. Berne is a clearly a skilled writer and one whose humor can delight. There just was too little meat on the bones. It reminded me of one of my professors responding to my thesis draft. “It’s well researched, well-written and original, but so what? Who cares?” I know that was a tough moment for me, forcing me to go back and rework my thesis, finding a reason someone would care, connecting it to more than the particular, but to the general as well. I want that to happen to this. I want there to be more than a so-what ending.