A man has died one of those squalid deaths we hear about from time to time, and in a scene that we’ve all seen in TV crime dramas, the old cop and the young cop have to break down the door of a trashed flat and deal with the putrefying body. McGregor is economical with the details but we know about the decomposition of the body because the young cop has a handkerchief to his nose and the old cop murmurs sympathetically that he’ll get used to it. The story moves on, but I’m still thinking, what kind of world is this that the police have to get used to this sort of situation so that it becomes routine?
Later on, the narrator takes the world to task for walking on past people in need.
Lying there waiting for help…is something else we know about. Lying on the ground and looking up and waiting for someone to come along and help. In some kind of trouble. A turned ankle, or a cracked skull or a diabetic epileptic fit or just too drunk to stand up again without some kind of a helping hand.
Which is when you’re most invisible of all. Get a good look at people’s shoes when they’re stepping around you. Like they’ll leave you there for days. Like they’ll leave you there for as long as it takes. (p58)
Talk to paramedics who resuscitate the same people over and over again – or try to help just once or twice yourself – and it’s no wonder that otherwise good, kind-hearted people walk around the drunk or drugged on the ground. In my own city I’ve stopped to ask if help is needed only to cop a mouthful of resentful anger and filthy language. I’ve taken beggars claiming to be hungry to a café and bought them both a meal only to have them walk out and leave it, hurling abuse at me because I wouldn’t give them the cash they wanted for a fix. In Edinburgh I gave money to a man crippled by a badly ulcerated leg only to see him saunter down the street with his cheeky girlfriend some hours later. At least when you give money to beggars in Asia you know that it’s not likely to be used on drugs, but these days I want my efforts to help the homeless to be effective so I support the Salvation Army who have the expertise and resources to make a real difference to people really in need.
The blurb on the back of this book talks about the ‘underclass we instinctively turn away from’ but the narrative, fractured as it is, tells a fairer truth. Even as he makes excuses for himself and everyone else in this story, the narrator reveals the efforts of many who would like to help. When Louisa spouts promises about making a clean start it is he who dismisses these pathetically good intentions because he’s heard them all before from every druggie he’s ever known. He recognises the phrases she uses because there are careworkers on that estate trying desperately to make a difference and getting no support from the community to do it, certainly not from the people who purport to care about each other.
‘I need someone who can support my … choices, she said, and that was mostly something her keyworker had said and she was just saying it again like a parrot’ (p48)
What a thankless, dispiriting job it must be, working in drug rehabilitation! As Even the Dogs reveals, the back story of these apparent losers is often brutally tragic: returned soldiers who can’t cope with the physical and mental legacy of war service; broken families; foster care placements which break down, poverty and hopelessness and so on.
Later on there’s praise for professions who minister to people that others disdain to touch. The chiropodist who deals with a man with trench foot because he hasn’t taken his boots off in six months:
Jesus. Give that girl a medal.
Cut his socks off and all bits and pieces came with them, skin and rotten flesh and everything, and she never said a word. (p72)
Most people, he says, go ‘out of their way not to touch you all day, to not hardly brush up against you or even catch your eye or anything’ (p72) but there are nurses who with their ‘clean soft hands’ and the hairdressers ‘running their fingers through your hair’ who have to confront insects – the flies, bedbugs, maggots and lice that people who live on the street just get used to -‘and no one says anything about it but it all helps oh Christ but it helps’. (p72-3)
I’ve seen some customer reviews commenting about the ‘bad editing’: unfinished sentences and missing punctuation. I don’t think it’s bad editing! I think the point about the disjointed narrative and ‘missing’ punctuation is to reveal the fractured way these people live their lives – they don’t get to finish things, there’s nothing settled or routine in their lives and their lives are completely disrupted by the constant need to get a fix. Their conversations trail off into unfinished sentences because nobody’s listening to them so their words just trail away into nothingness.
It is a haunting book. I only finished it last night but I keep thinking about the scenes where the ‘gang’ is hanging around inside the mortuary and nobody sees them there even though they come in close, wanting to touch the body. At first I thought this was the author trying to show Robert’s friends imagining what’s happening at the post-mortem, or was perhaps a sort of comment on the voyeurism of TV shows like Silent Witness. Now, however, I think it’s a post-modern technique to make us realise that all the officials dealing with the death and trying to find out what happened have not noticed these ‘invisible’ people from the underclass and so they’ve never bothered to ask them about what they know. At the same time, if the authorities did include them in the investigation and interview them, their evidence wouldn’t be admissible in court because they’ve all got lousy memories because of the drugs and because they can’t express themselves properly.
Even the Dogs is not easy reading, but it’s hard to put down once you get started. I’ll be watching out for more from this author.
PS Thanks to Alan at GoodReads for helping me to clarify my response to this book.
Author: Jon McGregor
Title: Even the Dogs
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2010
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library