“Even the Dogs” by Jon McGregor, Heroin Users in the City

“Even the Dogs” by Jon McGregor (2010) – 195 pages

 “Even the Dogs” is one of ten novels on the shortlist for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

This novel was a hard sell for me, because of its subject matter.  It is about ten or so hard drug users who live in an unspecified English city.  They don’t have jobs, they stay in unoccupied vacant apartments or other abandoned buildings, and they beg and/or shoplift to pay for their next drug fix or score or in their words “for the gear”.  Their drug of choice is heroin, but they will settle for lesser drugs or even alcohol if heroin isn’t available.  For the heroin, they must find a main vein or artery which hasn’t been used recently to shoot it up.

“One last fix to get their heads down and then it was like no more than a blink before they were awake again and cold and sick and crawling around looking for the next score.  Might have been a few hours but it never felt more than a minute.  Woke in some yard one morning and found a whole bunch of  dead mice about the place, frozen solid.”

Let’s just say I’ve never had an interest in the world of drug users, curiosity about their means of living, or even sympathy for their plight.  This is a definite roadblock to my fully appreciating “Even the Dogs”.  I remember that “Trainspotting” had a lot of drug use in it too which was treated humorously, but here the drug use is deadly serious.

The novel begins with one of their number, Robert, dying.  Several years before Robert’s wife and daughter had left him, and since then he has opened up his house to the others where they can shoot up in peace(?).  Later his daughter Laura joins him there, and soon she is mainlining heroin too.   One thing in the novel I found unconvincing was how upset all these other drug users are at Robert’s demise.  It just seemed to me that sudden death would be a fairly common occurrence among hard drug users essentially living on the streets, yet in the novel Robert’s death is treated as an overwhelming tragedy by everyone.

“Even the Dogs” is a grim intense read; much of it is gripping.  The writing itself is of high quality.  If I had had a shred of empathy for any of the characters, I might have been moved.

I did find one part of the novel sensationalistic, the autopsy which is performed on Robert.  For the autopsy, Robert’s body has to be cut apart and various parts of his insides examined closely, and the author lingers over every cut.  I kept thinking that no dead body fares well whether it is burned up and the ashes put into an urn or buried to rot in a cemetery.   Grim thoughts.

Ultimately I was unconvinced by “Even the Dogs”, but readers with a more open mind than me could very well be moved.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Grim is the right word for this. I was among the readers who found it moving, but I’m not sure I could have stood it if the book had been much longer. I liked two of this other books–So Many Ways to Begin and This Isn’t the Sort of Thing to Happen to Someone Like You: Stories–much more.

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  2. Tony: I liked this book quite a bit more than you did, but I can appreciate the problems that you had with it. What I thought McGregor did best was establish a community — I wasn’t particularly attracted to any one of them, but I did appreciate the way that they related to each other.

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    • Kevin, that is probably what I didn’t catch, that there is honor and community standards even among heroin users. Drug taking, besides alcohol, never did appeal to me, always worried about what exactly I was taking. Novels about outsiders usually appeal to me more than this one did, even though it is one of the favorites for the IMPAC award.

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  3. Another award. I missed this shortlist, probably just as well, as I’m still reading last year’s Orange Prize shortlist.

    I also find drug-users’ fiction difficult and won’t seek this out.

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    • Hi Frisbee,
      Yes, the IMPAC has a shortlist of ten, not so short. I may choose an Orange Prize finalist next, but I do have one more IMPAC book I’ve read but not blogged yet.

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  4. Hello, I must have missed this review when you wrote it so I’m coming to it late. (Don’t you love the way you find gems all over the web, just waiting till you stumble on them!)
    I read this coming from the same place as you i.e. not much interest in the drug scene, but I found elements in the novel that showed us what the caring professions go through in trying to help out. See mine at http://anzlitlovers.com/2010/06/14/even-the-dogs-by-jon-mcgregor/

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, I agree. I read your review. ‘Even the Dogs’ also “made me feel sorry for the social workers and police trying to deal with the human misery in this story.” You liked it somewhat better than i did. Using drugs is something for which I just don’t have much empathy. Shows and books about alcohol addiction appeal to me more, because I can see how that happens.
      Gambling is another thing I can’t really understand. Whenver I read something about gambling addiction, I just wonder why they just don’t quit, since I’ve never been tempted.

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