As Stevie Smith once wrote, while impersonating God, “I will forgive you everything,/But what you have done to my Dogs/I will not forgive.” About Dan Rhodes’s novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home, many readers will only need to know this much: The dog dies, gratuitously and in sordid detail.
Less bloody, but just as egregious: Twice in Rhodes’s novel, characters feed the dog chocolate. I suspect that Rhodes does not know that chocolate poisons dogs, because he presents the episodes as if they were benign. Or perhaps he does know, and the feedings are meant, like the butchery of the novel’s title dog, to suggest that doom and mutilation await every attempt at love in this rotten world. It can be hard to distinguish cheap cynicism from ignorance.
And it is hard to say which is less welcome in a gay novel about a dog. Or in any novel, for that matter. But in the particular subgenre of gay novels about dogs, the bar has been set high, thanks to J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You (1960). Like that book, Rhodes’s novel features an older gay man who lusts after a young straight and is loved by a dog instead. Ackerley’s protagonist reserved most of the details of his human sexuality but gave away those of his dog-love so prodigally that he nearly incriminated himself. Rhodes’s hero–an Englishman named Carthusians Cockroft who lives in Italy off the royalties of songs that he wrote for television in the 1970s–reverses these tendencies. He whines endlessly about his ex-boyfriends and his humiliations at their hands, but he is able to share only the most obvious facts about his dog. It wags its tail, it cocks its head. I found myself wondering if the author had ever owned one. On a related point, I confess that I have no idea whether Rhodes himself is gay or straight. In his author’s note and in the one interview with him that I have read, he appears to be neuter. But if he isn’t gay, then he is in an awkward illocutionary position, because he is selling homosexual degradation retail, for the chuckles. Consider this sample:
Cockroft knew that there had been times when he had lost his dignity completely…. He knew for certain that he had lost it in 1976 when, during a particularly difficult time in his life, the police had caught him spraying I SUCK COCKS on a footbridge over a dual carriageway. When the incident wasn’t reported in the newspapers he didn’t know whether to feel disappointed or relieved.
Ba-dum-bum. Nothing could make the joke funny, but one hopes for the sake of the author’s soul that it is, at least metonymically, at his own expense.
If it is, then there might be a kind of news in the novel. It might be possible to read the book as a bulletin from a certain corner of the gay male romantic world. Not that this would be much fun.
At the start of Rhodes’s novel, Cockroft, just old enough to draw a pension, has been living for five years with a stray dog whom he has named Timoleon Vieta. Man and dog share a secluded farmhouse in Umbria, from which the man decamps periodically in order to experience “blurs of sex, wine and tiramisu” in Florence and other cities.