Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Thought You Were Dead: A Coming-of-Age in Middle Age Story

Have you ever thought about what he or she would say if your dog could speak to you? In the novel I Thought You Were Dead, author Pete Nelson examines this question from a realistic perspective. That being said, the novel is difficult to believe in the beginning. I mean, a dog is an important character in the novel -- and she speaks!

When I initially began reading Nelson's novel, I laughed out loud in disbelief. "This dog is talking like a person!" I told my family. "I can't take this seriously!" I enjoyed Carolyn Parkhurst's novel The Dogs of Babel, in which a grieving husband researches methods to make his dog to speak so that she tell him about his wife's last minutes. Parkhurst goes into scientific detail, describing not only voice therapy and technology, but also horrible experimental surgeries that humans have tried in vain to make canines communicate in our language.

But I Thought You Were Dead is another tale entirely. From the beginning, main character Paul's dog Stella speaks freely and frequently. She greets him at the door, as a roommate or wife would. She inquires about his day. And -- of course not being able to understand the intricacies of time and space according to human standards -- she always thinks he is dead when he has been gone. Obviously intelligent in some ways, Stella remains blissfully naive (as we think of dogs being) to the ways of the world. This makes for some interesting conversations between dog and owner, as Paul often has to stop and explain parts of his stories.

At some point a few dozen pages in, I was able to accept Stella's voice and begin to focus on the novel rather than on this oddity of a writing convention. Paul is an excellent, loveable, and sympathetic character. As a writer of "... for Moron" books (think "... for Dummies"), divorced, and for the most part solitary, Paul doesn't have much going for him. He has a sort-of girlfriend, who is also seeing someone else. And he has drinking at his neighborhood bar, the kind of place where "everybody knows your name" [cue Cheers theme].

Suffice it to say, other than Stella, Paul lives an ultimately unsatisfying life. Then his father suffers a stroke and he is forced to spend his time shuttling between his current home and his childhood home, a place where he feels inadequate and overshadowed by his siblings. His father, unable to communicate, begins instant-messaging Paul simple "yes" and "no" answers. Eventually, this dwindles away into one-way conversations in which Paul spills his guts to his father via the internet. Through this tentative bond with his father, and with no small help from Stella, Paul gradually begins to find his way once again.

I Thought You Were Dead is not a plot-heavy novel. Although there are external conflicts (Paul vs. his brother, Paul's wishes vs. girlfriend Tamsen's wishes), most of the conflict in the story takes place within Paul himself. It is not truly a story for the sake of story, but rather a character growth story in which you will be rooting for the main character the entire time. It is a coming-of-age in middle-age story, in which Paul stops looking for satisfaction outside himself and realizes self-confidence is worth more than any outside approval.

Pete Nelson is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as dozens of short pieces of nonfiction that have appeared in publications such as Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and Rolling Stone. I Thought You Were Dead is his first work to be published through Algonquin Books. In addition to writing, he is also a musician.

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