Let me confess first, I am a major Berke Breathed fan. I wore a black armband the last day the Bloom County comic strip appeared in my local paper. People frequently come up and ask me as I get out of my car, “Are you a musician?” I have to explain that my vanity license plate that reads OPUS has nothing to do with music. When I first heard about the great Richard Dreyfuss film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, I thought it was about a penguin in Amsterdam. Imagine my disappointment. So it is hard to be very objective about Mr. Breathed’s first novel. Of course, I thought it was awesome.
Don’t confuse Flawed Dogs: The Novel with Flawed Dogs: The Year-End Leftovers at the Piddleton “Last Chance” Dog Pound, Breathed’s 2003 picture book. The picture book does introduce most of the characters, but only with short poems to describe them. This year’s book is over 200 pages long and not in verse.
Start with the dust jacket. In addition to Breathed, I am a fan of dust jackets with wrap-around illustrations. Seeing a big picture beats the heck out of reading blurbs on the back cover. You get a pretty good idea about the book just by looking at this one. The star of the show, in more ways than one, is Sam the Lion, the dachshund with the soup ladle for a leg in the foreground (Sam’s leg was replaced by a golf club in the earlier picture book). The rest of the strange looking canines appear in minor roles, mostly late in the action.
Sam has been purchased by a rich dowager in New England solely because he possesses the rare Duüglitz tuft, the sprig of fur right between his ears. The tuft gives Sam and his owner an inside track toward Best of Show at the Westminster Dog Show.
But fate has different plans for Sam, as he escapes his owner’s clutches, finds the girl of his dreams who loves him for his charming self, and then loses everything in a string of adventures and misadventures.
To find out how Sam loses his leg, spends three years on the lam, gets caught up in a research facility, finds himself involved in a dog fighting ring, and eventually gets a chance to bring down Westminster, you’ll have to read Flawed Dogs.
As one might expect Breathed’s illustrations—there are many, several in color—are worth the price of the book, a modest $16.99. The only minor problem is that several of the illustrations are not in sync with the narration.
Flawed Dogs is published by Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. I am not sure how young those readers should be. Unlike the author’s simpler picture books, much of this novel is pretty dark. And some of Sam’s trials are frightening enough that they could be the stuff of nightmares for children in the early grades. There is no pleasant way for a dog to lose a leg. So parents might want to read this one first and pass it on or read it aloud when they think their children are ready. Before I read the book, I bought a copy to give to my dog-lover niece for her 8th birthday. Now, I’m thinking nine or ten.
Breathed fans of any age, however, will not be disappointed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist’s writing talents. I’d say it’s time for a full-blown adult novel, but maybe with Opus and Bill the Cat as the main characters.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly in the paper since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.