Littlefield, Massachusetts, named one of the Ten Best Places to Live in America, full of psychologists and college professors, is proud of its fine schools, its girls’ soccer teams, its leafy streets and quaint village centre.
Yet no sooner has sociologist Dr Clarice Watkins arrived in Littlefield to study the elements of ‘good quality of life’ than someone begins poisoning the town’s dogs. Are the poisonings in protest to an off-leash proposal for Baldwin Park – the subject of much town debate – or the sign of a far deeper disorder?
The Dogs of Littlefield is a wry exploration of the discontent concealed behind the manicured lawns and picket fences of darkest suburbia.
Suzanne Berne captures the unease and poignancy of lives lived with so much of the base needs taken care of, but instead the characters have decided to spend large amounts of time and energy on fostering the slights and insecurities that cripple and delude them at every turn. The central plot serves as a springboard to a lovely, scabrous examination of the people and the domestic events that define them. There are passages of exquisite beauty without, leavened by observations and revelations that tap into something universal, painful and she does it without descending into the mawkish or the melodramatic.
She resists the call to darkness that would have been interesting, instead she shows us the quiet agonies of these people. It is an entirely engaging slice of black comedy, amusing rather than hilarious and the clumsy humanity of the work lends itself to the descriptive passages and the plot. I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, in that the central strangeness is merely an opportunity to show and amplify the internal struggles of the characters. There is a nervous charm to the book, and a willingness to follow things through to a downbeat yet hopeful conclusion. Berne gives off the impulse that things will go on long after the book is ended, for good or ill with a sharp eye for description and the black humour in the earnest lives of ordinary people.
It is worth a read, the prose is evocative and spare and it moves at a good pace whilst remembering where to draw the reader’s eye in order to reinforce the points of the work without it becoming too histrionic.