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BOOK REVIEW

Giving addicts a ghost of a chance

By Virginia A. Smith
February 25, 2010

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‘Even the Dogs’’ is an ambitious, haunting, flawed, and extremely depressing novel about homelessness and addiction in an unnamed, present-day English town.

In the promotional material, author Jon McGregor’s publisher has preemptively declared, “It’s not a junkie novel.’’ But what else would you call a book inundated with junkies, narrated by junkies, and full of concerns about the desperately sad lives of junkies?

Here’s how one of the book’s characters might describe the book:

“See, there’s this old bloke, Robert, who’s over-fond of the tipple and lives in a squat. He’s got mates that crash at his flat and do him favors while they wait for giro day so they can get sorted with gear. Robert dies because they forgot about him, and turns out they’re dead, too, and they’ve formed this ghostly chorus. They try to give Robert a good send-off as his body is carted across town in a van, bunged into the mortuary, cut open at the post-mortem, and cremated. Maybe there’s a bit of redemption because they say, ‘We see things differently now,’ but stands to reason that they can’t really be redeemed, can they, because they’re dead? Then at the inquest, Robert’s daughter thinks she might have a cup of tea first thing in the morning instead of gouching out on gear so maybe she’s going to be OK, then the judge says All rise and all of them rise, even his dead mates, so that’s them sorted.’’

The book is narrated by a disembodied chorus of Robert’s deceased mates, a first-person plural “we’’ that attempts to do for Robert what they were unable to do in life: take care of him. There’s Danny, from London; the suicidal Liverpudlian Mike who “hears voices’’; Heather, an ex-groupie and “cutter’’; Ben, a violent young man; and two former army men, Ant (who went to Afghanistan, where he lost a leg), and Steve (Falklands and Northern Ireland). Robert’s daughter, Laura, who also lives in the squat, is a crack addict.

The language, with its Faulknerian interior monologues, is predominantly idiomatic and fractured, rife with slang and expletives. But there are moments of beautiful writing: “Frost forms across the playing fields and the grass verges, and is smudged by footprints and tyres and the weak light of the distant sun.’’ A drug high is described thusly: “he feels whole again he feels sorted at last he feels what he feels warm and clean and wrapped up in silk and tissue and cotton wool he feels the way he felt when he first began.’’

The most cogently written (and perhaps not coincidentally, moving) sections include Robert’s early days as a young husband and as father to his daughter Laura; Steve’s humanitarian mission to Bosnia; Ant being blown up in the opium fields of Afghanistan; and the stomach-turning autopsy on Robert’s body.

The emphasis, however, is on the bleak present of the junkies’ lives, where helping a fellow addict find the only usable vein in a ruined body constitutes one of the few acts of love. But there is kindness, too. The unnamed, secondary characters, the care workers, police officers, van drivers, coroners, minister, and inquest judge, perform their jobs with surprising decency, and the addicts themselves do their posthumous best for Robert.

“Even the Dogs’’ is a thought-provoking, but not an enjoyable, read. Unless you have a strong stomach and an abiding interest in the lives of hard-core addicts, I’d recommend giving this one a miss. But do check out McGregor’s first two books, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things,’’ written when he was 26 and long-listed for a Man Booker Prize in 2002, and “So Many Ways to Begin,’’ long-listed for a Booker Prize in 2006, for fuller, more pleasurable, less harrowing examples of his many talents.

Virginia A. Smith is a freelance writer.

EVEN THE DOGS By Jon McGregor

Bloomsbury, 208 pp., paperback, $14