Woman's Best Friend

A Buddhist dog talks in Pam Houston's (partially) true tale

Pam Houston says that all of her stories are 82 percent true. She doesn't try to hide that. It's not worth it; if you know anything about her background, you'll see the resemblance between her and the narrator of the short story collections Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Catand the essay collection A Little More About Me. In each, a witty, thoughtful and complicated woman recounts her adventures and misadventures with inconsiderate men, alcoholic parents and ever-patient pets.

Sight Hound, which Houston will sign Monday at Brazos Bookstore, is her first novel. It's not for the Crichton-loving set: One of the main characters is a dog -- and a Buddhist dog, to boot. The story is about a middle-aged woman named Rae and her dying Irish wolfhound, Dante, who tries to teach her about love and fearlessness. It's told in first-person vignettes: Men, women and animals (two dogs and a cat, in fact) speak about their relationships with Rae. Most writers leave the first-person animal voices to the children's-books set, but Houston pulls it off with convincing ease. "I spend a whole lot of the day imagining what my animals are thinking," she explains.

Houston's earlier short stories are saturated with emotion: The Pam-like character in each grapples with romance, bemoans her body and dabbles in psychobabble. She's quick to reference Alice Munro, Fried Green Tomatoes and the fact that she writes for Oprah's magazine. Ah, but before you brand her a sniveling member of Dr. Phil's legions, consider that Houston has trekked alone to the likes of Bhutan and Botswana, gone fly fishing at night in chest-deep, icy water and dropped out of a misery-inducing Ph.D. program with only a few months to go. Her characters (and at least 82 percent of her) are incorrigibly brave.

The truth about cats and dogs: Pam Houston talks to 
the animals in Sight Hound.
Courtesy of Pam Houston
The truth about cats and dogs: Pam Houston talks to the animals in Sight Hound.

With Sight Hound, though, she initially wanted to keep herself to the side. "It was like, 'Okay, enough about her [Rae] already,'" Houston says. "I was tired of the sound of my own voice." Still, even when Houston banned protagonist Rae from speaking in the book, her fictional alter ego kept creeping back. "In a weird way she became more important because she didn't speak," Houston says. So she let Rae talk, and the book became about herself once more. "That's just where writing comes from for me," Houston says with a sigh of resignation. Then: "I can hear the apologetic note in my voice, and I don't mean it to be there."

It seems that Houston and her literary alias have evolved together, leaving behind the fear of hurtful men (Houston is married now) and longer books (another novel is in the works). Gone too is the somewhat brooding tone of her earlier narrators; you get the sense that she's content abandoning nit-picking analysis for grander themes and a dose of spirituality. Sight Hound is about, Houston says, "the lesson of love and loss." She pauses, seemingly as stymied by that lesson as the rest of humanity. But then, with a knowing sigh, she says, "Which is that you can't have one without the other."

One wonders if an Irish wolfhound taught her that.

 
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