Shakespeare’s Dog by Leon Rooke

About Leon Rooke: Rooke was born in 1934 in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. He and his wife moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1969, before settling down in Eden Mills, Ontario, where he founded the Eden Mills Literary Festival in 1989. He began his career producing plays and wrote scripts such as Krokodile (1973) and Sword Play (1974). He has published numerous short-story collections, including Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed (1968), The Love Parlour (1977), A Bolt of White Cloth (1984), and The Happiness of Others (1991). Among others, his novels include Fat Woman (1980), Shakespeare’s Dog (1983, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction), A Good Baby (1989), and The Fall of Gravity (2000).

I interviewed the author here.

“Dog was meant to chew on fleas and confess to the world he liked it. To sit or heel or roll over, as master commanded. He wasn’t mean for ghosts’ skull-tapping.”

Published in 1983, Shakespeare’s Dog is wild and wacky from the very beginning, opening up as it does with the eponymous Hooker attacking another dog named Wolfsleach because he was mounting his bitch Marr. Like an R-rated Aesopian fable, the entire book is narrated by this mangy mutt, one who bites, pisses, shits, and even laps up his own vomit, as dogs are wont to do, sharing it with the strumpety Marr: “Venomous toads hopped heavy as iron along my stomach walls, spurting their poisons. Worms gnawed beneath my fangs. Unable to lift my head, I retched down over my standing spot. Blood and slimy noodles and greyish stringy ribbons of gut driveled forth.”

As one might expect, Rooke uses a plethora of Shakespearean insults and licentious allusions, some that come from the great writer himself and others that were created in the spirit of linguistic fun. For instance, here’s an exchange between the lovebirds Shakespeare and his Hathaway:

“‘Bate-breeder, bed-swerver, thou imperseverent, rancid mome!’

‘Codpole!’ she’d answer. ‘Thou woodcock, what stick is it grows between your legs that makes you think you can take a merry bride and quit her before the nighttime falls?’”

Through Hooker’s imagining, we see how they ended up together in the first place, mostly driven by carnality, and during such amorous moments promises of commitment were made. The wise Hooker knows as well as his wet nose that “[Shakespeare] would regret his claims-making once he was milked past his fevering pitch.” O how the cloudy milk clouds the mind!

Both “Hath-her-way” and “Shakespizzle” are roasted by each other as much as by our literary and loquacious canine, yet Hooker still has feelings for his pitiable owner, someone who is trying to follow a dream that makes him at best a dandy in the eyes of his parents and others, a source of anxiety and insecurity for ol’ “Shagspere.” No, Hooker doesn’t worship at “Shacklespeare’s” effete feet, and in fact, he’s quite critical of his owner’s insular worldview. Apart from the occasional anachronism, the ironic crux of the novel is the suggestion that Hooker is the inspiration if not the very professor who injects humanity into his scribbling. The anthropomorphization is such that Hooker can speak with other humans (“Two Foots”) and be mutually understood.

While “Snakespit” is a large part of the narration, we also learn more about the pupper’s life too, including his rough birth on the streets of the medieval Stratford-upon-Avon and a possible although brief reunion with his begetter. There’s also a somewhat anticlimactic plot thread involving official dog torturers. In general, the book does lose some of its power over time and manages to feel less like a novel than an extended short story. I think this could have been solved with a wider scope because the novel ends fairly early in Shakespeare’s journey, and I would have loved a kind of picaresque adventure in which Hooker bears witness to a majority of “Shaxpoot’s” life if not the entirety. Despite this, it was still a relatively vivacious read.

Shakespeare’s Dog is Rooke’s most known novel (it was even adapted into a play by Rick Chafe), yet it’s still something of a little hidden gem. Among his oeuvre are many stories (around 350 published ones), plays, and a handful of novels. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of his work.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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