By Graham Chaffee
You a dog person or a cat person?
Me, I’m a dog person, always have been, dad had dogs so we always had one around, always beautiful Staffordshire Bull Terriers, the most wonderful, loving, attentive, kind, caring of dogs, maybe a little on the dense side, but certainly nothing like the dangerous wild things they’re portrayed as on TV. We have a mantra in our (sadly dogless) house; it’s not the breed, it’s not the dog, it’s the owner.
Which brings me to Graham Chaffee’s latest. And the first of his works I’ve read. Inside Good Dog he does the most amazing of things, gets right inside the mindset of the dogs involved. This definitely isn’t some sort of Disney thing, this is something where you hear the dogs talking in your mind and it just feels spot on, just feels exactly like it should be. It’s a brilliant little book, one I could quite cheerfully have read much more of, one that definitely left me wanting more.
Our hero Ivan is undoubtedly a good dog, but he’s a good dog without an owner, or a boss as all the dogs call them. And the loner life doesn’t suit him. Bizarre dreams of rabbits and chickens plague his nights, and by day he wanders the neighbourhood without purpose, stopping in on his bulldog pal, grabbing food where he can, water where he can, affection where he can.
Needy but good, that’s Ivan.
That’s the sort of thing that just seems so damn right, the dialogue between the dogs feels spot on. We know they probably don’t talk like this, but it fits, it makes sense to think that they might, it’s how we’d like them to talk, and that’s the great trick Chaffee has pulled off her, the characterisation is spot on. Ivan is loyalty without a master, desperate for a place, not sure what he really wants but knows he wants something. His friend Kirby is stupid dog personified, caught up in his own leash because it’s in his nature to get distracted by some dumb bird fluttering round his head, nature over sense.
And then one day it all might be changing for Ivan when he chances upon a wild pack, ripping off a meat factory, running wild and free with their ill-gotten gains. Tagging along and then joining the pack he learns a little of the characters in his new family; wolf descended Sasha who leads them and dreams of a glorious death foretold by his mother; Sawney, a black scottie, Sasha’s second-in-command, providing a little realism to Sasha’s dreams of reckless glory. With the rest of the pack they run the neighbourhood, and inevitably, run into trouble.
There’s lots of talk of the right place, of the dog’s life being only true when it’s lived free, but throughout the book, Chaffee paints the picture so vividly that you understand that dogs, just like us, are complicated beasts, and each has to find their own life. Some want the glory, some want independence, some just want a bowl of their own and a place to lay their head at night.
Beautiful moments are plentiful, sadness as well. But one moment stands out as heartbreaking. It’s just four panels…. Ivan is running with the pack, when Kirby, the friendly Bulldog he used to visit back he was a lone stray, calls out….
The plaintive question from Kirby, the turn of Ivan’s head to the noise, the guilt on his face, the skulking away, back arched in shame… that’s just great.
And there’s stuff like that all through Good Dog, as Chaffee’s simple cartooning delivers page after page of minimal line and great storytelling. The dogs are just perfect, the expressions, the tone, the art, the dialogue, the actions, it’s exactly as we imagined. Chaffee delivers a great book, one that’s relatively unheralded thus far, but one that really deserves your attention.