LILY AND THE OCTOPUS. By Steven Rowley. Simon & Schuster. 301 pages. $25.99.
The relationship between a boy and his dog is a time-honored topic in literature. Think of classics like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Old Yeller.”
These stories of love and loss illustrate the depth of emotion many humans feel for their pets. They make us look at ourselves and wonder to what lengths we would go for our own four-legged creatures.
In his debut novel “Lily and the Octopus,” Steven Rowley takes the classic boy-and-dog tale and turns it inside out. Instead of a pre-teen boy out in the wilds of the Midwest, we have Ted Flask, a 42-year-old lonely gay man living in Los Angeles with his aging dachshund Lily who speaks in all caps (and loves ice cream). “WHAT! IS! THIS! CLOUD! THAT! YOU’RE! LICKING! I! LOVE! TO! LICK! THINGS! WOULD! I! LIKE! TO! LICK! THAT!”
We learn on the first page that 12-year-old Lily has a malignant tumor on her head that Ted names “the octopus.”
Ted’s head is a pleasant place to spend 301 pages. He’s witty, self-depreciating and fantastically loyal. He works from home as a freelancer and spends most of his time with Lily.
His humor is often directed outward to the ridiculousness of life in L.A., or his therapist Jenny, a name he says that is better suited to a gymnast or “a worker at one of those frozen yogurt places where you pump your own yogurt and all they have to do is weight it and they still think their job is rough. I just don’t think people take Jennys seriously.”
Ted has been seeing Jenny since his last relationship ended nearly two years prior. She fruitlessly tries to engage him in discussions about his love life, which he describes as tedious and tiresome. It becomes clear that Ted isn’t seeing a therapist to analyze his dating; he’s there because he has to decide what to do about the octopus.
Rowley’s powers of imagination are what makes this book so distinctive. The story is inspired by the author’s relationship with his dog, who died of a brain tumor in 2013.
In interviews, Rowley has said that he began writing stories about his dog as a way to process his grief. Rowley is the current golden boy in the publishing world after landing a nearly $1 million advance from Simon & Schuster. This is almost unheard of for first-time authors, especially for a book that, according to the author, was going to be self-published before it was snatched up.
It turns out the money was well spent, because there is much to love in this book. The relationship between Ted and Lily is comical and tender. On Sunday nights, they eat pizza, Thursday nights, they talk about cute boys (“We get into long debates over the Ryans. I’m a Gosling man whereas she’s Reynold’s gal”), and Friday nights they play Monopoly.
The presence of the octopus, and the vet’s dismal prognosis, disrupts their routine. Ted immediately sinks into the first stage of grief, which is denial. Thus “octopus”; he does not use the word cancer.
More than half of the book is spent on Ted’s poignant memories of their life together.
“I think of how dogs are witnesses. How they are present for our most private moments, how they are there when we think of ourselves as alone. They witness our quarrels, our tears, our struggles, our fears and all of our secret behaviors that we have to hide from our fellow humans.”
Toward the second half of the book, Ted devises a desperate plan to save Lily’s life. He rents a boat and heads out into the ocean with Lily to kill the octopus.
The drama is amped up as man and dog sail into open water — and the realm of fantasy, requiring suspension of disbelief in a section I counted as my least favorite.
“I am becoming harder, meaner, wilder. I am becoming the octopus.” There is a storm and a battle and an eventual retreat home. In the end, it’s Jenny who offers the best analysis of the octopus and the cocoon it’s spun over Ted’s life. “They can be symbols of growth, of transformation, of metamorphosis.”