August 20, 2015
Fall Books Preview: The Dog Walker, by Joshua Stephens
by Mark Krotov
We’re only weeks away from the launch of our Fall 2015 season, but why wait until September? Over the next couple of weeks, we’re giving you an exclusive look at the exciting new books about to land at Melville House—debut novels, major translations, and nonfiction about everything from dog walking to cocktail culture. We’ll feature a different excerpt every day, along with an introduction by our editors. Today’s book is The Dog Walker, by Joshua Stephens, out September 29.
Sometimes I wish that books were graded on their capaciousness. Moby-Dick would surely get an A+, but length is hardly a prerequisite: Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is just over 200 pages long, yet I can’t think of a richer, more omnivorous contemporary novel. The Dog Walker, which comes in at 256 pages, is about Joshua Stephens’s experiences as a dog walker, but that’s a bit like saying that Kitchen Confidential is a book about soup preparation. Dog-walking offers Stephens the opportunity to reflect on everything from gentrification and street harassment (topics discussed with great seriousness) to why dogs sometimes try to eat cats and why you should assume that your washing machine is also your dog walker’s washing machine (topics discussed with appropriate irreverence). Shifting from hilarious personal anecdote to thoughtful political reflection to actual, useful advice for dog owners, The Dog Walker is a book about everything, which is why it includes a great chapter on the Zapatistas, as well as one titled “Spoiler: Dogs Are Assholes.” In the spirit of capaciousness, I offer you Stephens’s answer to “That Question You’re Dying to Ask.”
Yes. Dog walkers deal with shit. Actual shit. Dog shit.
For some reason, this preoccupies everyone but the dog walkers. And that lack of squeamishness isn’t terribly interesting or profound. Go outside, and pick up the newspaper from in front of your house. If you don’t get the paper, steal your neighbor’s. Slide that plastic bag-sheath thing off of it. Put your hand in that bag, like it’s one of those oversized rubber gloves your mom wore to wash dishes. Now pick up any object outside, using that hand—a rock, some leaves, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Peel the bag off your hand, turning it inside out, so that whatever object you’ve picked up is concealed in it. The end.
How long did that take you? About five seconds. A dog-walking route one could rank at the high side of average would involve doing this roughly thirty times. Two-and-a-half minutes. In four hours. I could rattle off any number of things in a dog walker’s workday that take up more time than that, and certainly take up more mental energy.
Common rectal hygiene in much of the world involves considerably more direct hand-to-shit contact than dog walking. And it’s probably instructive in more ways than I can address in this short work that, as an American, the overwhelming majority of people who dilettantishly ask me if I’m squeamish about dog excrement are—unlike, say, much of the Muslim world—passing their tidy days with a mix of toilet paper and shit smeared up their ass cracks. Freedom isn’t free, I guess.
I have three major problems with the premise of poop anxiety. First, the apocalypse we seem to think will swallow us whole if our taboos around bodily fluids and functions are transgressed is horseshit. Let me assure you, if you live in a city, pretty much every outdoor surface below knee height is covered in piss. You literally live in a piss-soaked environment. Dogs have taken care of that for you. Thankfully, in most cities outside California and the southwestern United States, it rains from time to time, and the piss-index dips for a day or two. So there’s a periodic reprieve. Nonetheless, this bizarre, sanitized construction of life that we so fiercely defend from contamination is little more than a story we tell ourselves. And it’s dumb. The vast majority of the world is not nearly so tidy, and people manage to not only survive, but accomplish feats that defy the imagination. Welcome to the grown-up table.
Second, babies. Seriously. Most of you are procreating like mad, which means you’re handling quantities and varieties of shit that ought to induce nightmares, and not infrequently taking a stream of piss to the face in the process. Worse, you’re willingly sleep deprived (and have very likely forfeited all greater life aspirations) for the privilege. Even once you’ve graduated that phase of parenthood, you’re going to be wiping the equivalent of a very drunk person’s shitty asshole for another few years. And you’re seemingly incapable of shutting up about how it’s the greatest thing ever.
Third, I am deeply skeptical of universal truth-claims of any stripe. But there is one truth I regard as absolute and unchanging, and it is that poop = funny. In fact, I am positively evangelical about this fact. If you don’t think bodily functions are absolutely hilarious, I’m not sure I even want to talk to you. And walking dogs for a living really only dialed in my devotion on that score. When a dog locks eyes with you while backing out a grumpy, with that mixture of spite and deep confusion in their expression—that is an incredibly special moment. The fact that you live in world where that even happens ought to make you want to go door to door with The Good News. When someone shits their pants—it doesn’t even matter if the cause happens to be life threatening. With time, it’s still funny. When one dog moves in to sniff something another has decided to mark, and you wind up taking him home with piss on his face? Incredible. When one dog locks in to pinch a few off and in his delicately balanced and highly vulnerable position gets his face fucked by an eager peer nearby? Day maker.
This is a dog walker’s job. To bear witness to the most powerful truth on offer, and bask in it. ’Tis no burden, friend.
The Dog Walker, by Joshua Stephens
On Sale September 29.
Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.