When Brian Conaghan’s When Mr. Dog Bites came out in the U.K., it took a bit of flak for all of the profanity. To which I say: Really? With that cover art*, a tagline that reads “a story about life, death, love, and swearing,” and a narrator who has coprolalia that stems from Tourette’s syndrome, I find it difficult to believe that any reader would be surprised by the content.
His doctor and his mother think he didn’t understand their conversation, but he did: Sixteen-year-old Dylan Mint is going to die in a few months. Before he does, he wants to do three things: Have sex, preferably with terrifying-yet-fascinating classmate Michelle Malloy; help his friend Amir deal with some racist bullies and find him a new best friend; and get his father back from the war so he can see him one last time.
Well, that’s the easily describable hook. Ultimately, though, Dylan’s impending death isn’t much of a factor. When Mr. Dog Bites isn’t about a boy on a focused quest to achieve those three goals, it’s about a boy who’s trying to navigate adolescence with the added challenge of a body that won’t behave itself. His goals are at the forefront of his mind—as is the taxi driver who keeps parking in his father’s spot and coming inside for tea-and-a-chat with his mother—but his movement toward those goals never really feels driven by a ticking clock. (SPOILER-ISH: Which, due to the two twists at the end that many readers will undoubtedly pick up on early on—I called them both by page 50—makes a lot of sense.)
I had a couple of minor difficulties with it: First, it’s specifically set in 2014 but almost all of the pop-culture references stem from significantly earlier, and second, Dylan sounds quite a bit younger than 16, in terms of experience (he’s never masturbated), innocence (he’s somewhat sheltered, but it seems unlikely that QUITE so much would fly over his head), and in terms of voice. That last ding is arguable, though: Since he is constantly trying to avoid saying inappropriate things, he tends to overcompensate when he’s in control. Regardless of how you end up feeling about that, his voice is an absolute pleasure to read, original, energetic, warm and often unintentionally hilarious.
He’s a fan of wordplay, and has developed his own personal slang, a creative combination of stream-of-consciousness, cockney rhyming, pop-culture references, and plain-old Scottish teenager. All that, when peppered with the unintentional vocalizations that fly when he’s nervous or upset, guarantees that you’ve never read anyone quite like him. For example, here’s one of his excruciatingly embarrassing advances towards Michelle Malloy:
Then it all came out like projectile vomit. I had entered the Speed-Speaking World Championships.
"Would-you-like-to-come-to-the-Halloween-disco-with-me? FUCKING BITCH." Oh, please tell me she didn't hear that last bit. But there was No Way, José she didn't. Michelle Malloy stared at me for what seemed like yonks. I was rubbish at staring games.
In addition to the strength of his voice, the relationships and interactions between the adult characters are really well-drawn—which is especially impressively done on Conaghan’s part, as Dylan himself doesn’t always pick up on the subtleties, but his narration makes it possible for readers to see more than he does. Even with my slight reservations, two thumbs up.
*There are two editions in the U.K., one geared at the adult market and one geared at the youth market. The U.K. youth market cover treatment is the same as the U.S. cover, so I think my point stands.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.