Monster Dogs of New York by Kirsten Bakis

Farrar Straus Giroux 1997 291 pp. 23.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


"It is a terrible thing to be a dog and know it": this is the poignant and fevered dilemma of the title characters in Kirsten Bakis terrific first novel, Monster Dogs of New York, a work for which the word droll was invented.

No one said that it would be easy, walking upright, wearing a Prussian military outfit, speaking through a mechanical voice box, and using artificial hands, especially if you are Ludwig von Sacher: historian, archivist, and dog.

But we anticipate.

Our account begins last century, with a mission spawned in the diseased mind of one Augustus Rank, who began a series of experiments to develop a master race of dog soldiers: vicious, replaceable, and fanatically loyal. After a falling out with his German patron, Rank moved his operation to "a secret city in the Canadian wilderness," Rankstadt, replicating life in Prussia as it had been in 1882. There, following a century of experimentation, his associates finally produced their first Monster Dog, Rupert, on September 15, 1968.

A bloody doggie revolution ensued, and the Monster Dogs, having killed their masters, migrated to New York in 2008. As the German Shepherd, Ludwig von Sacher, relates:

"We had heard of New York City, for our masters’ ancestors had passed through it on their journey between Bavaria and western Canada in 1897, and knowing that it was a cultured, modern metropolis inhabited by many kinds of immigrants—though of course none so strange as us—we decided to plunge straight into the heart of the modern world, and come here."

In the heart of Manhattan they live like urban princes and princesses, having brought untold wealth from their sacking of Rankstadt, and granting interviews for fabulous sums. Dining on Moroccan lamb with figs and rice, brimming with melancholy, they ponder and plan.

Among their plans is to build a giant replica of Ludwig II’s castle, a gift to the citizens of their adopted New York, named, appropriately, Neuhundstein.

Our narrator, Cleo Pira, encounters Herr von Sacher on the street one day, and, Ludwig, struck by her resemblance to Augustus Rank’s mother, Maria, enlists her to tell the Monster Dogs’ story to the world. Her first Vanity Fair piece is appropriately entitled "Doggy Style." From this accidental beginning, Cleo develops a relationship with several of the dogs, and therein lies the tail, I mean, tale.

While it may well be that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, in New York the dogs lives become more complex and discouraging, as they experience travails that owe more than a little to The Island of Lost Souls. Ms. Bakis’ control of her prose is such, though, that one is drawn to the poignancy of the dogs’ condition, even while smiling at the shaggy and elevated silliness of it all.

This is no mutt of a first novel, and although I’m not one to hound newspaper readers, let me just say that you wouldn’t be barking up the wrong tree if you chose as your next treat Lives of the Monster Dogs.