Thursday, August 14, 2008
This post contains spoilers for a best seller about a pet. Figure it out or read on.
I first heard of Marley & Me, the book about a hyperactive Labrador retriever, in an online chat with a writer that said that he had wriiten a few books, but didn’t make “Marley and me money.” I wasn’t quite sure what that was. It seems it’s 73 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and a movie starring Owen Wilson. It’s pretty flattering when you can get Jennifer Anniston to play your wife.
Normally I avoid schmaltzy books like that as if they were radioactive. When my son had to read Tuesdays With Maurie, I cringed and wondered what was happening to our education system. That sort of sap had no place in a classroom.
But half-way to Atlanta we stopped at a cheesy discount outlet for a stretch break and I found a CD audiobook version of Marley & Me for only six bucks. It was abridged to six hours and read by author John Grogan. I went for it since I knew I had over twelve more hours of driving that weekend, much of through radio unfriendly Bible Belt mountains.
My wife, who had read the kiddie version abridgment was worried it might be too sad. Spoiler Warning: Marley dies. I decided to give it a go anyways. The story of a newlywed couple that cluelessly adopt a highstrung puppy. We found that the story mildly mirrored our own early married life. The Grogans started a family soon after testing their parenting skills with a dog. While the specific details varied greatly, the overall arc rang a bell.
Also, a lot of the book takes place in West Palm Beach during the early nineties when we lived there as well. We enjoyed the sarcastic commentary about West Palm, Palm Beach, and Boca Raton as much as some of the antics of the titular dog.
And some of the tales, even allowing for comic exaggeration are just horrifying. The dog is destructive, neurotic, and poorly disciplined. Behavior that would get him sent to a pound by most owners is laughed off. While I won’t spoil any specific incidents, some are amusing, some are touching, and some are disgusting.
And of course, some of it gets maudlin. As Marley ages and the inevitable end looms (and don’t all dog stories end the same way), we were reminded of the slow year-long decline of our dog and our decision to end his pain less than a year ago. By the time we hit the DC suburbs, we were both crying.
And here is where Grogan earned his Marley money, which may or may not be millions, but it's definitely enough to recover the cost of all the damage that uncontrollable beast did to his houses. The story itself is nothing special. Lots of people do the things he and his family did: raise some kids, change jobs a few times, and bury a pet. He took a rather typical story that millions of people lived and gussied it up into some sort of universal tale of growth.
This is a story arc that millions of middle-class Americans can relate to. And as Groban tells, lots of dog owners are perversely proud of their dysfunctional dogs. Even I once came up with 100 Things About My Dog. If only I had known what a gold mine setting down the life story of a beloved pet was. But it was Grogan that tapped into this part of the American psyche.
And when you have poured your heart out, what do you do for a encore? Marley has already become an empire with special gift editions, the upcoming Christmas Day release, a website with a blog, and perhaps someday a special line of chew toys. In October, Grogan is releasing a prequel about his childhood. But somehow I doubt his childhood was as universal as his love for his dog.
BlatantCommentWhoring™: Is your pet worthy of a bestselling memoir?