A traumatized woman and her traumatized dog go for walks. This is the spine of my friend Janice Gary’s new memoir; its many layers make for interesting reading. She’s conveying experience as it unfolds, trying to understand her past, and taking risks in life and in her story’s telling. At first I worried about Gary’s putting her beloved dog under the spotlight with her for most of the book—he’s difficult, and the book’s structure puts relentless narrative pressure on her voice, outlook, and experiences. But Short Leash soon had me collared.
First, the dog. Barney is a big, goofy, smelly, allergic Lab-Rottweiler cross. He was attacked by another dog when he was a pup, and he’s become terribly aggressive to other dogs. But Gary skillfully depicts Barney’s basic good nature and his mellowing as he ages. Gradually I found myself forgiving and then liking him. He’s already an older dog and Gary is in her mid-forties when they venture out. And soon you realize what a brave act it is, beyond his aggression, for her simply to take him for a walk.
Once ambitious, artistic, and headstrong, Gary was raped when she was 19, and has spent too many years feeling scared. So the book’s major setting, a lovely park on Chesapeake Bay near her suburban Maryland home, seems safe until you look at it through her eyes. Those lonely paths. The pools of dark shade. Other dogs that Barney might attack. The mysterious bend of a trail into the woods. That rustling in the bushes. We gradually learn, too, of an earlier trauma, the suicide of her manic-depressive father when she was 15.