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The Usual Suspects

And now, boys and girls, for a trip to the Big House.

But first. Readers may recognize Tim Egan as the wryly funny author and illustrator of Dodsworth in New York, Dodsworth in Paris, Dodsworth in London, and who knows where Dodsworth will turn up next, but they will probably not remember where he started. Dodsworth is a dog, to be clear (though I would not remember it, this author is so ecumenical in his casting), and his journey began way back in The Pink Refrigerator, which is finally more representative of Egan’s fascination with suburban ennui.

Nobody’s getting plastered here – don’t worry – or trading spouses or lighting things on fire, still at the heart of these stories is a sense of longing most children can probably fathom for the sort of excitement that is always conceivably lurking just outside the margins of our familiar little worlds.

“Try and do as little as possible,” is Dodsworth’s motto, though I think this is sort of defensive (we putter because that is the rhythm of the world), and his searching, truer self is revealed in a junkyard where he goes to scout merchandise for his thrift shop.

“Make pictures,” reads a mysterious note stuck onto a discarded refrigerator wherein Dodsworth discovers a sketchbook, among other materials, which he cannot bring himself to sell.

More notes appear subsequently – “Play music.” “Learn to cook.” “Keep exploring.” – the last unaccompanied by contents, as though all of these acts of creation were merely warm-ups for the ultimate unburdening: travel.

So then New York, Paris, the world, where the sights are worth carefully studying, not least because wandering among them is a certain unruly duck from back home – but that’s another story. And yet it’s not, for here is an extra reminder of the squawking and nagging that we never completely leave behind.

Do we even want to? Well, it’s not immediately clear in New York, where Dodsworth appoints himself the duck’s rescuer, then in each of the European cities where he seems at least equally grateful and aggrieved for the irrepressible company, who dons an acorn for a beret in Paris, and nearly gets into a pub fight in London; the sights would not be half so beguiling without him.

Back on Davenport Street – and probably not so far from Dodsworth’s shuttered thrift shop – Arthur Crandall is burning the toast again. Arthur and his wife are, also, dogs, though one of the pleasures of Egan’s books is to go searching around for familiar faces among the hippos and mooses and cows which (mostly genially) populate what often appears to be the same town.

“It was a nice life,” reflects Arthur. “Not perfect, but nice.”

That is not counting the lousy old toaster and the gang of taunting crocodiles on the corner – “Hey muttface, fetch. Heh heh heh” – which of course you really do. Little things add up, especially when there isn’t survival at stake. Pretty soon Arthur is wishing those miscreants into squirrels, which doesn’t go quite according to plan, while also preferring to live in a tropical paradise (as people with three wishes are sometimes inclined before thinking it through) where the natives become pretty tiresome after thirteen straight hours of dancing and pina coladas.

They get a chance to set things right (the smell of burnt toast proves transporting), they’re the wiser and happier for it, but most of their reinventing is done for them, a particularly comforting fantasy.

In The Blunder of the Rogues, a team of feckless losers needs to hit bottom in prison for seven years before they turn their lives around, though some darkness had already descended which was on the verge of scaring them straight. This comes in the form of a karate-chopping sheep lady who is every bit the ruthless grifter these part time jaywalkers and graffiti artists never really have it in them to become.

It’s a hard lesson – not without servings of humiliation and federally mandated gruel – though everyone finds their callings on the other side: the raccoon (our narrator) becoming a family man and a columnist for the Klondike Herald, the walrus a master chef and restaurateur, the gorilla a fitness instructor, the rat a touring magician.

As for Dodsworth, I hope he visits Beijing eventually. Karachi. Las Vegas! Then I hope he settles down. Tends his garden. Starts a band. Hosts a couple of poetry readings in the thrift store. Who knows? Maybe that duck can throw down some indecorous rhymes. We don’t always need to travel to be ugly Americans, but God bless our incurable nerve. 

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