A Review of Alice Kaltman’s DAWG TOWNE by Alexandra Pennington

Alice Kaltman’s novel Dawg Towne features interchangeable narrative perspectives among six members of the tiny suburban Towne who each offer a different glimpse into the rich and complex connections made between man and canine. The central conflict of the novel features a young dognapper; she believes she is a social justice warrior who is saving town animals from a cruel fate with their “neglectful” owners. Each character is forced to grapple with the significance of owning a dog that adds joy or fulfillment to their lives while as they also engage with one another in interpersonal, human-related conflicts. The novel is broken into sections reflecting the four seasons in nature, and each section opens with the omniscient voice of Towne who narrates the drama unfolding in overarching terms. Towne also expresses admiration for the humans it witnesses surviving “harsh, unforgiving times” again and again. As the seasons change, the individual characters grow as a result of their circumstances, and Kaltman expertly explores the themes of love and loss through characters of varying age, background, and profession to reflect numerous situations that are unique to the human experience. Dawg Towne is a humorous and captivating piece of fiction that will put a smile on your face while also forcing you to consider your purpose in the world.

Kaltman’s style is rich and distinct on account of the numerous character voices she invests time into exploring. Each speaker uses vivid language to convey sensory details and events in a context that is specialized for that specific character. An example of this can be seen with Lucinda, a middle-aged mother and interior designer, who is able to notice “A glorious tiled mosaic sunburst inlaid on the hall floor [peeking] its way out from under years of grime” in the old estate that the washed-up celebrity, Brady Cole, moves into across the street. Adults are not the only fully characterized individuals as a result of detailed observations and language. Younger characters like Lucinda’s teenage son, David, and the elusive culprit in the missing dog cases, Nell, also use up a lot of page space to explore their position in complicated affairs that arise. David, for example, struggles with his identity as a boy and expertly hides his stolen feminine goods consisting of “lipstick from his aunt Beth’s Judith Leiber clutch” or a “hand-stitched and silk” blouse from the women’s section of the thrift store that bring him pleasure in private. Nell, on the other hand, has her own secrets to hide as she starts taking dogs from backyards because she feels like she is the only one aware of “how shackled dogs were by human expectations. Each domesticated pet an indentured servant forced to serve purposes they would never choose themselves.” Kaltman’s shifting character perspectives is a brilliant technique used over the course of the novel to present individual motivations in a simple, routine format that pieces together into a larger, equally captivating narrative.

The writing style also integrates personal moral lessons with great precision through characters like Abraham, a father and tortured writer who has lost his spark for the craft, and the wandering Nell. Abe and Nell’s storylines cross over numerous times throughout the piece and give way for interesting discussions about what we hold valuable in our lives. Abe, for example, adores his pit bull, Gordon, as well as his toddler son, Milo. In a series of unfortunate events where Abe has to tie Gordon up outside of Paddy’s store because dogs are not allowed inside, the dog ends up getting taken by Nell without his knowledge. Nell expresses how “Taking the dog had been the right thing to do. It was a spontaneous, impulsive, and intuitively correct decision. Nell was heroic, saving this creature from a fate worse than death at the hands of a neglectful enslaver,” which sparks many more dognapping scenarios because she believes she is doing what is best for the canines of Towne. Abe struggles with having to care for Milo while also making progress on his novel because he does not have his faithful dog companion to enliven his stay-at-home lifestyle and distract him from what is truly important. Abe eventually comes to terms with the loss of his dog after accepting Nell’s blunt words, “Find your own purpose…Stay away from mine.” What we think we desire and need in our lives is not always the case. Nell’s personal mission is reckless and unusual for this quiet town, however, her antics inspire other pivotal characters to reconsider how they treat both their animals and the people they are connected with who add richness to their lives.

Dawg Towne is a refreshing take on suburban life that explores the intimate lives of Towne’s residents while also providing an overarching, metatextual narrative from Towne itself about human behavior that changes dramatically over the course of a year. The unique voices among characters like Lucinda, David, Abe, Paddy, Brady, and Nell are established in a close third person perspective at their respective moments in the piece, and each one offers hilarious, embarrassing, and heartwarming viewpoints of scenes that are easy to digest. Having this many narrative voices to keep track of sounds overwhelming on the surface, but Kaltman provides each character with their own unique voice and equal amounts of secrets and shortcomings that intertwine with the rest to produce an enjoyable, fast-paced reading experience. We cannot forget about the presence of loveable dogs who demonstrate to their owners how to be better humans. Kaltman’s novel has its place among other creative stories that have dogs operate as a primary form of plotting for emotional exploration and complex tension among their owners. It is a profound and highly entertaining work that explores the many truths about what it means to be a person in this crazy world.

Dawg Towne, by Alice Kaltman. Brooklyn, New York: word west press, June 2021. 354 pages. $17.00, paper.

Alexandra Pennington is a recent graduate from Winthrop University with a BA in English. She is currently studying for a MAT in secondary education at Winthrop. She is a writer and avid reader who explores numerous genres, including fantasy, horror, psychological thrillers, and historical fiction. In her free time, she obsesses over her writing, Stephen King, The Simpsons, and 80s movies.

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