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.
“Timoleon” and “Vieta” happen to be the subject headings on the spine of Volume 22 of the 1973 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and so in the dog’s name there is a grace note of nostalgia for childhood. From the dates it would be the author’s, rather than his character’s, childhood that is evoked, but in any case the dog offers Cockroft the certain and unconditional love that the fortunate receive in childhood and associate with that period of their lives. The dog, which is male, is said to have eyes “as pretty as a little girl’s.”Cockroft calls the animal “a saint.”
Adult human love, unpredictable and demanding, is much less gratifying to Cockroft, who experiences it as a series of betrayals and pratfalls, mollified from time to time by short-lived sentimental delusions. (One such delusion is a happy ending that Rhodes arranges for Cockroft–panderingly nicey-nice in tone, and much less plausible than the unhappy end he inflicts on the dog.) Nonetheless, Cockroft craves human love. He hates the self that he becomes when alone.
It was as if there were two different versions of him, one of which only came alive when there was another person around…. When he lived alone he would spend whole days crying, but he never did that when there was somebody else there, and he would go for days on end without having a bath, but he always washed regularly if there was somebody around to smell him. When he lived alone he used toenail clippings and pubic hairs as bookmarks, and talked to himself, the one musketeer, almost all the time.
Note how Rhodes seems unable to abate his ridicule until his hero’s flaws have gone from endearing to repulsive.
One day a dim sadist with a “young, firm body” appears at Cockroft’s. He claims to be a Bosnian refugee, and he is willing to suck off Cockroft once a week in exchange for room and board. Cockroft enjoys the arrangement, but after the “Bosnian” settles in, he demands that Cockroft lose the dog, because it growls at him. Cockroft complies. He even convinces himself that eventually the dog would have been no more loyal than a man anyway. “It’s what you wanted isn’t it?” Cockroft says to Timoleon Vieta just before abandoning him. “You’re just the same as all the others, aren’t you? You all get sick of me in the end. You all fall out of love with me, if you ever even loved me at all, which I don’t suppose you did.”
I know that people abandon dogs all the time, but I think very little of these people, much less than I do of, say, thieves or impostors, and I don’t want to read novels about them. But I have been hired to write a review, and therefore, dutifully, I ask: What kind of character would betray the love of a dog for the sake of affectless sex? Under what circumstances might one be able to empathize with such a character?
The answer, I think, is discernible in a jump-cut that occurs soon after the Bosnian and Cockroft come to terms. On Wednesday at 7 pm, the Bosnian announces that he is “ready to pay his rent.” Before Rhodes describes the sex work, however, he digresses.
He inserts a line break and then introduces a flashback, thus: “Cockroft had lost track of how many hours of his life he had spent contemplating suicide.” There follows a rambling reminiscence of Cockroft’s many grandiose fantasies of killing himself and his one serious flirtation with railway tracks at night. Then Cockroft and narrator return to the matter at hand: “But this was one of the rare moments when he was glad that he had never quite got around to ending it all. If he had done, he wouldn’t be lying on the kitchen table, about to have his balls sucked dry by a big, handsome Bosnian.”
Rhodes delivers the line as a joke, but it is a sad one, which turns on the unexpected compatibility of suicide and this particular argument against it–loveless sex with a man whose motives are fear and need. Rhodes knows that sorrow is beneath the surface of his jokes; he must, because he is very clever about dodging it. But in his narrative voice he pretends to be past disappointment, and he mocks those who won’t pretend with him. A softhearted policeman, standing by when Cockroft ditches Timoleon Vieta, steps away because he “didn’t want to get caught up with the kind of people who would abandon a dog at a bus stop.” The policeman’s precaution seems reasonable to me, but Rhodes feels obliged to cut him down to size by revealing, a page later, that “it was a shared love of plants and animals that had brought [the policeman and his wife] together when they were at college.” Ha-ha. If you admit to being vulnerable to love for anything, in Rhodes’s book, then the joke is on you. It was stupid of Cockroft to betray his dog, but it was nearly as stupid to love the dog as much as he did in the first place. And before that, I suspect, it was stupid of him to love and to want to be loved by men.
In the second half of the novel, Timoleon Vieta attempts to return to his master, and the dog’s path crosses those of a series of likable gulls whom Rhodes jilts, scars, burns, isolates and demoralizes. Rhodes here extends his cynicism to the heterosexual world. By the time I reached the later chapters, Rhodes had taught me to wince at the introduction of new characters. I dreaded what he would do to them.
There is no charity in Rhodes’s novel, probably because he believes it to be scarce in the world. But in fact it isn’t necessary to choose between kindness and lust. It’s possible to have a dog and a boyfriend, too. Hell, you can even have a plant, if you want one, and if anyone makes fun of you for it, tell him to knock it off.