‘White Dog’ by Romain Gary (1970) – 279 pages Grade: A-
One day the Gary family’s pet dog Sandy is followed home by another stray dog, a German Shepherd. All the Garys are quickly smitten by this new dog which is friendly to the entire family. However soon they realize that the dog has a problem. This dog was originally a police dog from the South in the United States and had been trained to ferociously attack any black person in sight. This racist dog would never suit Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg since they frequently host meetings of the Black Panthers and other social and racial justice groups at their home. So they take the dog to a kennel which employs a skilled dog trainer named Keys in order to change the dog’s offensive behavior. Keys happens to be black himself.
This all occurs in 1968, and ‘White Dog’ captures all of the wildness and radicalism of that time. Romain Gary brings an intellectual’s insight to the story, but he is no ordinary intellectual. He was one of the few original World War II aviators to survive the war and is a war hero. In France in the 1960s, Gary was considered an establishment rightist due to his high position as a diplomat in the DeGaulle government and his vehement anti-Communism. However in the United States he was considered a radical leftist for his belief in black-and-white racial justice. He had the good sense to understand that there isn’t much difference between Communist authorities imprisoning millions of their own Russian citizens and those United States ‘law and order’ politicians who work to imprison millions of their own black citizens.
Gary’s wife Jean Seberg was one of the top actresses in Hollywood and heavily involved in radical politics. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under J. Edgar Hoover did everything possible to discredit her, even getting major gossip columnists to spread the false rumor that she was impregnated by a black man. When she miscarried, she had the premature baby buried in an open casket in her hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa so everyone could see that it was white.
Both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated during the spring of 1968. In particular the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King was the murder of hope in the United States. ‘White Dog’ is an insider’s view of the radical movement in the United States at that time. Much of the book is taken up with his own skepticism and analysis about many of the radical ideas that were floating around at that time. Many of his views are sensible and quite brilliant. Here are just a few of Romain Gary’s insights in ‘White Dog’.
“If evil things were only done by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.”
“There are worse traps than trusting people.”
“I have a profound dislike for majorities. They always become crushing. A majority may sound like a democratic force, but there is usually more force than democracy.”
“Half the things that happen aren’t possible.”
Some of the views expressed in ‘White Dog’ were au courant at that time and now hopelessly out-of-date. Even when Romain Gary is wrong-headed in his opinions and views, he is nothing less than fascinating.
‘White Dog’ is fundamentally different from most writing today. It is filled with challenging and in some cases infuriating ideas. Today much is written to attract the most readers. It is well-written, tasteful, and guaranteed to please most everyone, but it doesn’t really hit you where it hurts. Not many books today are annoying and invigorating at the same time like ‘White Dog’.
For more, read Emma’s review of ‘White Dog’ at Books Around the Corner. She is the one who recommended I read this fine book.