Disclaiming the disclaimer–Terry Kay and the truth of “To Dance With the White Dog”

In this post, I’m going to start with the ending, then do some standard description of the book.  There was no standard disclaimer in the book about the fiction having to do only with no actual people, alive or dead, and in fact I didn’t run into the “disclaimer of the disclaimer” until the last page–I had been a good and servile reader and not looked ahead to “spoil” the story or satisfy my impatience.  Here’s what I read on the last page:

“Author’s Note:  You will find in many novels a fine print disclaimer about the story, about the coincidence of similarity to real people and real events.  It is a proclamation that fiction is fiction, regardless of its wellspring.  This novel does not carry that disclaimer.  It would be a lie.  I have taken To Dance With the White Dog from truth–as I realized it–of my parents.  There was a grand romance of life between them, and my father’s loneliness following the death of my mother was a terrible experience for him.  And there was a White Dog.  And my father did believe White Dog was more than a stray.  In this novel, I have changed names, numbers of children, and other facts.  I did this for two reasons–dramatic intensity and detachment, both necessary in relating a personal memory to an unknown audience.  I do not mean to offend the truth.  I only wish to celebrate its spirit.”

This book, dealing with at least some actual events and people as it does, is still fictionalized and as such, using the fine imaginative lens of Terry Kay to reach its realization, has a great deal to do skirting the delicate edge between sentimentality and sentiment, the first a definite drawback to experiencing genuine emotions dealing with death and dying, the second, sentiment, being an especial plus where it occurs.  The basic story line concerns an elderly man, Sam Peek, who is still robust though on a walker, and whose children cluster around him with their emotions not always under proper control when his wife “of fifty-seven good years” dies and leaves him alone while still surrounded by well-meaning offspring.  The sentiment is what the author is striving to picture, the sentimentality is what he is trying to eschew, even while picturing the sometimes overwhelming emotionality of the man and his children towards everyday events which call the mother’s death to mind.

This is a tough job, and yet I believe that by and large Kay manages to bring it off, though a cynic might mock the simplicity of the world view(s) of the characters.  Kay leaves his characters alone and doesn’t usually attempt to explain them away, controlling most of what happens from the old man’s viewpoint, whether he is actually “dancing” with the mysterious white dog which appears after his wife’s death or whether he is writing in his journal and enjoying a playful plot to tease his children, particularly his daughters, who worry about him too much and crowd him with their concern while he is trying to maintain control of his own feelings.

The stray dog is the first center of his children’s concern, because their father tells them that it appears to be fed and will let him touch it and comes in his house, but none of them can see it, at least not at first.  Realizing that his daughters think he’s barmy and attempting to amuse himself at their expense, he deliberately gets in front of them and pretends to pet an invisible dog, and to dance with its paws on the front of his walker.  They can never see it, and furthermore their dogs don’t bark when he says his dog is around, so of course they start to wonder if they should make other plans for their father than allowing him to live alone with themselves checking in on him periodically and sometimes coming to cook for him.  Finally, however the blazing white dog is seen at a distance, and Neelie, the old African-American woman who was a special friend of his wife Cora’s, tells them it’s a ghost dog with their father, and they aren’t sure what to believe, not only what they believe but what their father believes.  This is perhaps a weakness of the text, that a stereotypically ghost-fearing older black person would have this perspective and voice it for them, but then I can’t apply the same standards to Terry Kay’s book that I might apply to a work of pure fiction, because for all I know Neelie was modeled upon a real person who happened to have these particular traits.  That is a matter for Kay’s creative conscience.

One thing I can speak to is that the characters more or less speak and act like real people otherwise, not like cardboard cutouts of people in the Deep South, and they do things that are not stereotypical.  For example, one of the sons threatens a father of some ne’er-do-wells whom he thinks may have harmed his father when the old man suddenly disappears for a few days, and there is a later scene when he repents of the threat, not because there was any bad result of it externally, but because he realizes that the father of the miscreants may in fact be as worried about the careers of his own boys as all Sam Peek’s children are about their missing father, who it turns out later has simply taken his white dog and gone off on an adventure of his own, the last big one of his life.

Taking all of these things together, I enjoyed my reading of To Dance With the White Dog, and found that it used simple language and concepts to put forth some very complex ideas about living and dying.  It is a quick but by no means negligible read, and has made fans in many places, perhaps one of the most far-flung geographically speaking The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, who had this to say about the book, my copy of which was dated 1990:   To Dance With the White Dog is a hauntingly beautiful story about love, family, and relationships.”  This is the essential thing one can say about the book, because it really doesn’t matter whether the dog is real or not, a ghost dog or not:  what matters is what the characters do with the circumstances they are given, caring for each other in circumstances of that eternal enemy of humankind, death.  In this book, the characters show the way of death’s defeat and the triumph of their own supposedly weaker mortality in the contest between the two.  And that’s what “dancing with the white dog” is all about.

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8 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

8 responses to “Disclaiming the disclaimer–Terry Kay and the truth of “To Dance With the White Dog”

  1. Keeping the language and concepts simple is usually the best idea when dealing with emotionally heavy concepts, especially for one who was very close to the factual events. The emotions at the death of someone close is almost universal, and you run the risk of alienating the reader if one’s overanalysing strays from theirs. You feel pain at the loss, your own mortality is drawn into focus, you feel almost a sense of withdrawal at the person no longer being there, and eventually some form of acceptance.

    As always, a nice review Doc. Keep up the good work =)

  2. Richard Gilbert

    Beautifully said: “skirting the delicate edge between sentimentality and sentiment.” A bon mot of your own that kind of lays out the nub and rub of all art!

    • I appreciate the compliment. I didn’t expect to like the book as much as I did, and Kay builds things up slowly, so that the material would have its “longueurs” for folks who want the traditional “hook ’em and reel ’em in” sort of structure. But I admired his sure hand with not allowing the book to become more ghost story than story of a family, which is where the strength of it lies. He’s from your original corner of the globe, isn’t he? There must be something in the air down there which breeds dedicated and talented writers!

  3. I am sold on this, sadly I am also poor, so I think I will hold against you your fine review and request next time you inspire me to purchase a book that you will send me the money as well.

    • Dear Ste J, I refuse to feel guilted into supplying all the books I like (and you like) to read, the more especially since I got my copy from a free pile at my local library. Someone sadly underestimated the writer to give up the book so easily, but then maybe other people are more generous and share more easily than I do (I rarely let a book leave my hands once I have it, unless it’s a pile of trash, which I am more than willing to get rid of). May I suggest Amazon’s “used” function, where I have upon occasion found books for as little as 1 cent U.S. (plus the $3.99 shipping and handling)? It might be a hard book to get in the U.K., but trawl a bit for it and you may well find a copy. I think it was published in 1990, or at least my paperback copy was. Good luck. If I didn’t have this obsession, this hoarder disorder, really (though I don’t hoard anything but books), I would willingly send you my copy. I’m hoping my deficit counts as part of my charm (ha!ha!).

      • It was worth a try to get a book from you…I knew it would be doomed to failure, hehe. I like the term hoarder disorder and encouraging me to hunt bookshops is always welcome. I shall now let you off…for the moment…ha!

  4. You think “hoarder disorder” is a great term? On her site at WordPress, Pat Bertram explains what is meant by “Reward Deficiency Syndrome,” or something similar to that. It’s when you are short of the dopamine, seratonin, and several other weirdish sounding chemicals in the brain, and the result is that you have a hard time feeling secure and contented and happy. Boy, do a lot of people have that one! Seriously, I think I myself have it sometimes–I’m just glad somebody finally put a name to it. Hey, maybe my Reward Deficiency Syndrome is the reason I’m never content with the books I have already, but keep prowling bookstores and libraries for more! And maybe (in this sinister vision) it’s actually behind my Hoarder Disorder. (Can I capitalize that now that you said you like it?)

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