If there’s such a thing as a literary Rocky, in other words, a writer with a solid professional record, yet missing that big knockout punch that lands him or her the championship, then our Island’s own Susan Wilson is that phenomenon.
Ms. Wilson of Oak Bluffs has five hardcover, nationally distributed novels under her belt. The first one, Beauty, published by St. Martin’s Press in the early 1990s, was made into a television movie and translated into a bunch of languages. Four more books followed: Hawke’s Cove, Cameo Lake, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter and Summer Harbor.
But Susan Wilson had an itch. For many years now she has longed to break out of upscale romance writing and to pen a mainstream novel.
However, when you’ve got a great little business going with a particular genre of fiction, with hardback and paperback rights sailing in through open windows and promotional tours booked at Barnes & Noble franchises and Holiday Inns, well, when you mention to your editor that you’d like to try something new, something original, something so much more intrinsically “you” than stories about romance and marriage between one man and one woman, then heads are going to shake from side to side, and if publishers could pop thermometers in writers’ mouths, they would promptly do so.
But Susan kept at it, first with a wonderful novel set in the horse breeding world (she is a rider and passionate horse lover). This manuscript, due to the vagaries of the publishing business, failed to sell. Then Susan sat down and tried another animal tale, this one about an incorrigible, unsinkable, outrageously lovable dog and his human, a damaged, mangy, former high-powered executive of a soul mate.
St. Martin’s Press purchased the book, the release date is set for March 2010, and blurbs from famous writers now tornado through the St. Martin’s mailroom, from Augusten Burroughs (“One Good Dog shows how animals teach us everything about hope, healing, and unconditional love”), Iris Johansen (“One Good Dog equals one great book”), and on and on.
So you see why the Rocky analogy has been deployed. If here on the Vineyard we had the equivalent of the state house steps in Philadelphia for Susan Wilson to race up, boxing gloves held aloft, she would be cheered on to do so, right down to the famous theme music.
Every so often you pick up a novel and you know from the very first sentence you’re in the hands of a master crafter of stories. Books to think of as instant closers are Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, Louis Fernand Celine’s Death On The Installment Plan and Amis Kingsley’s Lucky Jim. Susan Wilson performs the same magical feat with her single-page prologue. Read it and you’re off to the races.
The author alternates points of view from both protagonists. The first person singular goes to the dog named Chance, and the third person singular serves for the initially grudging dog-adopter, Adam March. Both dog and man have had horrific childhoods of Dickensian proportions. Chance, a pit bull, has spent his whole life in a grimy basement, eating, breeding, and fighting to the death other pit bulls. Adam’s formative years revolved around a deceased mother, an absconding father, and a series of malignant foster homes. What doesn’t kill him makes him strong, and he goes on to triumph in the corporate world. Yet he’s consumed by demons, both internal and external, the latter category including his status-obsessed socialite wife and the impossibly spoiled daughter they’ve raised with equal amounts of misguidance.
Then one fine day Adam’s foul memories, latent rage and a misleading phone message deposited on his desk by his secretary, combine like the cerebral equivalent of food poisoning. A moment of fury and inexcusable behavior lands him in court, sentenced to community service in a food kitchen, unemployable by dint of notoriety, and only two or three degrees removed from life on the streets. This is a man in need of a guardian angel. Can a battle-weary, escaped pit bull fulfill that role?
Like the lovers in a European romantic comedy, in One Good Dog the predestined couple take their own sweet time to actually meet. And then, more typical of screwball comedies of the 1930s, they get off to a rocky start where the possibility of even tolerating one another looks mighty slim.
The end of One Good Dog is so suspense-filled, the reader has to hold herself off from speed-reading through to the end. Call this reviewer crazy, but it’s painful to have your heart audibly and tangibly thumping in your chest as you wait for the outcome. But leave it to Susan Wilson, in this her first masterpiece, to leave the hearts of her readers happy, whole, and uplifted.