Joan Kaufman’s Dogs, Dreams, and Men is a very well-written book. Kaufman’s sentences are clear-cut and precise, and her visuals of moments both awake and asleep (the “dreams” of the title) are rounded and grounded and very real. Her no-nonsense style is both observant and forward-moving, driving along her plot of a woman alone in New York City with the real life rhythm of time passing inexorably along. We can hear the undercurrent of the narrator’s voice throughout the novel: “Is my dog really that old now? How did that happen, when I have remained the same?” and we understand the paradox of time, that it passes quickly and we do not — we cannot — always keep up with its constant pace.
The protagonist of the novel is Ann, a woman wrapped around herself, opening space up within for her dog to climb in but letting no one else near enough to inflict any real damage. When Ann does allow for intimacy, she does it with the worst judgment, and she finds herself, indeed, damaged. Not irreparably damaged but enough that she will add another shell of protection, layer on another buffer against connection.
Kaufman recreates the Upper West Side of the late twentieth century perfectly. I was there, and I recognize every place and every person. Her characters are gems of New Yorker types without being caricatures, and they are, for the most part, worthy of a Woody Allen movie. But they are not from his comedies, at least not one of the funny ones. This novel is a tragedy, the tragedy of fear and of self-loathing. There is no comedy here, not a spot of humor.
At the center of the tragedy is Ann. Ann is unflinchingly honest about her actions as she narrates eight years of her life story, yet she is strangely obtuse about those around her. Doesn’t she know her boss is an real jerk? And the charming boy/man is really nothing more than a charmer: can’t she just leave him at that and move on? Why does she set herself up, again and again, for disappointment? Because for all her navel gazing, she doesn’t understand herself. She does, however, understand her dog: Emma loves her, and knows she is loved. Simple. But then love for a pet is a much easier proposition than love for another human. Pets cannot explain themselves, and humans try to, only the explanations too often sound like excuses.
Ann makes some effort to move out of herself but her efforts are, in my opinion, feeble. Why learn calligraphy to only write someone else’s words? Why learn to sing if the point of singing — to pass joy — is missing completely? Kaufman is presenting us with a character who cannot even belt out a song alone in her apartment, who thinks people who sing are “lunatics.” But she wants to sing: does she want to drive herself out of where she is into some place new? The novel raises many questions and does not give us easy answers. Ann is complicated and a neurotic; she is honestly harsh with herself and yet she still does not see where to go with herself.
Dreams play a big part in this novel and I am generally not a fan of dreams. Here the dreams are effective in showing us Ann’s insecurities and fears, along with her very basic desires. The dreams also seem to be quite clear in showing her a way out, yet Ann doesn’t see the message of moving out of herself to help another, to save another. In trying to save herself, always, she loses out.
There are opportunities for Ann to move out of herself positively — to help an old woman who has lost her dog, to help a stray who has lost his way — and she does not. It is a pity, because by drawing away from the contemplation of her own woes and inadequacies, and helping someone else, she might have actually found something to sing about. She might have found satisfaction outside of herself and in the process, matured more, changed more. Instead, the change she undergoes in the novel are incrementally tiny, and in the end, not that satisfying for the reader, nor do I think, for the narrator.
Nevertheless, it is an engaging picture of one person’s life, a seeringly honest depiction of the never-ending process we all go though, the process of self-honing, of getting ourselves to where we want to be, and who we want to be. I want to read more from Joan Kaufman, and will look for bigger changes, better men, and good dogs.