By W. Bruce Cameron

#1 USA Today bestseller, 1/19/17

What it is: A 2010 novel that follows a dog through a few different lives as it gets reincarnated over and over. The dog eventually finds its way back to Ethan, a man who during his childhood raised the dog in one of the dog’s earlier lives.

Obviously the main thing everyone remembers about A Dog’s Purpose now is that before the film adaptation came out, a video leaked that seemed to show one of the animal performers in the movie being mistreated. Apparently an investigation ultimately determined that the animal involved was actually fine, and I was surprised to find that the movie ended up doing okay at the box office. In any case, the marketing campaign for it was prominent enough to push this seven-year-old novel to the top of the bestseller list. (Which isn’t that impressive compared to the return of the sixty-eight-year-old 1984, but still.)

The book’s concept is inventive and it succeeds at being affecting in parts. There’s some probably unavoidable confusion as to what the dog protagonist actually understands about the world; it always thinks people who are making out or having sex are “wrestling” and takes a long time to figure out the idea of years and seasons, but also sometimes uses an oddly technical level of detail, like when it refers in its narration to “depositing a stool along with my urine.” The human characters’ dialogue (which the dog relates without apparently understanding what it’s supposed to mean) is also unnaturally formal at times, like when teenage Ethan gets distraught over a leg injury and laments, “I’ll never be able to participate in sports again.”

Maybe the most striking thing about the book to me was the character who causes that injury: Todd, a troubled kid who resents Ethan’s success as a wholesome, all-American high school football player. It’s implied that Todd nearly thrill-kills the dog as a child before being interrupted by his sister, and later Ethan breaks a leg jumping out of a window after Todd sets fire to his house. I expected that Todd might return in the book’s climax and get killed by the dog or something, but he after the arson he just drops out of the story. What’s funny is that apart from his homicidal instincts, he kind of comes off as a standard school-age malcontent; Ethan at one point asks him “Why can’t you just be normal?” and later says “[Todd]’s always been twisted, you know?” Todd’s like the incarnation of a high school normie’s suspicion that every Goth kid at their school is a serial killer in waiting, which really is just flattering to the self-image of everyone involved.

I guess this just caught my attention because I’m a quiet weirdo and some people who went to school with me probably thought from the outside that I seemed like a Todd, but I haven’t killed any dogs or set anybody’s house on fire. Never say never, I suppose.

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