In Perlstein’s (Slick!, 2011) winsome fable, a protective dog and the therapeutic effects of stand-up comedy help heal a wounded family.
Abbie Greenbaum is a 25-year-old slacker in San Francisco who coasts through a life centered on desultory dog-walking gigs and a garage band. He still lives with his dad, Morty, an American studies professor who specializes in deep ruminations on TV comedy. Morty’s English bulldog, Brutus, who’s chief among Abbie’s canine charges, narrates their story with a stately aplomb befitting his advanced age and arthritic hips. Brutus so identifies with his masters that he considers himself a fellow Jew; in his own mind, he’s adopted the name Baruch and presides benignly over Morty’s frequent observances of Jewish memorial rituals. There’s a lot for Morty to mourn, as his daughter, Sara, and wife, Lenore, died years ago—a tragedy that overshadows his strained relationship with Abbie. Another girl named Sarah, a motor-mouthed 10-year-old with Down syndrome, bounces into Abbie’s dog-walking routine along with her mother, Rivka, a half-Jewish, half-Chinese professional stand-up comic. Over the course of the story, Abbie gets embroiled in a friend’s half-baked drug-dealing scheme, Morty comes down with lung cancer, and both become infatuated with Rivka, who prods Morty through her stand-up comedy class. Perlstein’s novel has some twee conceits that might have overwhelmed it, particularly the plummy, stentorian narrative voice of Brutus, who sounds like Henry James scoping out a nightclub (“Understanding my role as Abbie’s wingman—and aware of the attraction that an English Bulldog of my stature maintains for women of all ages—I gazed instead into the young Latina’s eyes as might Rudolph Valentino in the era of silent films”). Fortunately, the author’s gift for sharp, empathetic human characterizations rescues the proceedings. He steeps the story in well-observed renditions of West Coast Jewish culture, from homey dinner routines to the theory and practice of stand-up comedy, in which kvetching is the wellspring of artistic revelation. Perlstein offsets the shtick with psychological depth and nuance, keeping it charming throughout.
A funny, affecting novel about fragmented lives that slip the leash.