#117) Book review: “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park” by Matthew Gilbert

I had three purposes in reading this book. First, having recently become a dog parent, I was curious about the author’s experiences with and observations of dog park culture. Second, the park in question is Amory Park in my hometown of Brookline, MA, a spot where I spent many youthful summer evenings playing catch, listening to bands and not having sex. Third, I’m intrigued by new angles on old formulas and I wanted to see how “Off the Leash” did with “Dog Teaches Human To Open Up And Embrace Life.”

As a non-dog person growing up, Matthew Gilbert never expected himself to be the parent of Toby, a yellow lab. Having often felt socially inept, he usually avoided interactions. As an adult, it was easy for him to hide behind work or his cell phone instead of connecting with strangers. However, at the dog park, all bets are off. On regular trips to the park, Gilbert learns to let go of his inhibitions, both by watching Toby play with reckless abandon and by finding himself in close proximity to people whose paths he never otherwise would have crossed.

There’s an old joke about a baseball game being fifteen minutes of action crammed into three hours. “Off the Leash” is an essay crammed into a memoir. Gilbert has points that he believes are important (and maybe they are) but he repeats them to the extent that they lose their meaning. His prose, laden with flowery similes and deep insights, seems to be aimed more toward scoring points with editors and reviewers than entertaining the general public. Gilbert spends four pages analyzing how throwing a ball to Toby brings back childhood memories of gym class ineptitude but then aborts on story lines that have potential. One regular is described as an author of terrible puns; we never hear any of them. A woman with rectangular glasses and crazy hair has never heard of Britney Spears or Madonna but there’s no backstory to explain her avoidance of popular culture. Sure, readers don’t always need their hand held, but while Gilbert is busy with minutiae, he doesn’t give us enough reason to care about the dog park regulars or even his own journeys from outcast to social butterfly; from being afraid of dogs, dirt and chaos to embracing them. It’s both disappointing and surprising that Gilbert, a TV critic for the Boston Globe, hasn’t created more memorable characters.

I found myself comparing this book (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) to “Marley and Me.” Granted, Gilbert’s going for a more subdued, observational humor than the belly laughs caused by Marley’s antics, but still, “Marley and Me” spoke to me more when I read it as a non dog person than “Off the Leash” did when I read it as a dog person. John Grogan was able to sell me on Marley as a projection of himself–awkward and unruly but ultimately loyal beyond measure. Gilbert’s attempts to do so both with himself and Toby and with other dogs and their humans seem forced; he describes the bond between dogs and owners as a “caravan” and then proceeds to use that word more often than Bill Bryson uses the word “arresting” in “In A Sunburned Country.” Grogan also makes the locales part of the story, particularly in how Marley’s unrefined energy terrorizes the beautiful people of Boca Raton and their chihuahuas. By contrast, there’s nothing particularly special about Gilbert’s Amory Park. I frequently had to remind myself, “Dude, you should be more interested in this…it takes place in Brookline.”

That’s not to say that “Leash” doesn’t have its merits. Gilbert has a nice eye for detail, in particular how he captures the nuances of the changing seasons during the year he chronicles. One of the few well developed characters is an old man who has no dog but comes to the park for the company, providing a touch of melancholy that rings bittersweet without being preachy. Some of Gilbert’s observations hit the mark in spite of themselves: “We were at the Cheers bar and the dogs were the booze that loosened us up.” Others are poignant without being too sentimental: “Sometimes someone you liked just vanished…and you knew you’d never see that person again in the same casual way. You’d run into them in the market and awkwardly ask after each others’ dogs. You’d had a special daily bond that you couldn’t easily conjure up or recreate on a cell phone.”

“Off the Leash” is weighty at times but ultimately doesn’t ask too much of its readers. It’s short, often piquant and when it waxes literary at a level beyond appropriate for the subject matter (“The wooden picnic tables continued their distinguished aging process…”) it’s easy to tune out. Airplane, at the beach, before bed: these are a few of the contexts where “Off the Leash” can best give what it gives: an essay’s worth of mildly amusing, occasionally interesting observations on life disguised as a 220-page memoir.

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