Sick as a dog | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

According to public opinion Richard Adams wrote two books. You already know the first one. The Plague Dogs is fine: it’s audacious, tense, exciting, and well-written. But it’s not Watership Down, and reading it gave me a greater appreciation for Adams’ earlier book, because it demonstrates some of the ways Watership Down could have gone wrong.

Rowf and Snitter are dogs subjected to horrible medical research at a government laboratory. A careless janitor allows their escape, and they take refuge in the hills of England’s Lake District, preying on sheep to survive. Rowf is a weary, cynical mutt who’s given up. Snitter is a fox-terrier, half-insane from experimental brain surgery. Combine their parts and you would have a single healthy animal. Their odds of survival aren’t good, but Snitter (who fills the visionary role Fiver had in Watership Down) has a vague idea that he might have once had an owner. Is this true, or a ghost from the crack in his head?

That’s part of the book; another involves the scientists at the laboratory trying to contain the story of the missing dogs and instead throwing gasoline on the fire at every turn. Soon the dogs are believed to be carrying a strain of plague, and half of Cumbria is out hunting them with rifles.

The Plague Dogs is curiously indecisive, never very sure of what it’s doing. All at once it’s a grim satire, anti-vivisection propaganda, a “naturist” ramble through rural England, and a thrilling animal adventure. The parts often work on their own but don’t become a harmonious whole.

The satirical elements are the worst. The research lab Rowf and Snitter escape from is called Animal Research, Science and Experiments (ARSE), the dialog between government bureaucrats sounds like Yes, Minister, muckraking journalist Digby Driver makes Rita Skeeter seem like Truman Capote, and there’s a fat Fleet Street magazine editor called Hogpenny because he’s fat, etc.

The book’s as subtle as a gunshot to the face. The scientists at ARSE are almost comically evil, torturing animals on behalf of makeup and cigarette companies.[1]I was reminded of the Onion article New Ted Nugent Cologne Tested On ‘Every Goddamn Animal We Could Find’. I’m barely joking when I call the place “Pawschwitz”. Rowf and Snitter receive identifying numbers at the lab: this was already troweling on the Holocaust subtext a bit thick, but Adams also can’t resist telling us that ARSE’s Dr Goodner used to be Dr Geutner and used to work at Buchenwald, at which point it stops being “subtext” and starts being “whacking the reader across the head”.

Digby Driver is implausibly lucky; always at the right place, always meeting the right person, always having them say the right thing. He’s also stupid: after unmasking Goodner he blackmails him for information on the lab escape, even though a Nazi war criminal on the government payroll would be a far greater scandal than two dogs running across the countryside.

I expect that most of The Plague Dogs’ readers wanted an uplifting adventure story about animals, but there’s little of Watership Down’s optimistic spirit. Adams’ rabbits were as capable and resourceful as Navy SEALs and the book’s happy ending felt deserved, because Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver created it through their actions. Rowf and Snitter are just helpless mutts, relying on luck and a clever fox to survive. The Plague Dogs contains a lot of “the dogs are in trouble, deus ex machina!”

This might be The Plague Dogs’ biggest problem; the protagonists are animals but the story is controlled by humans. Rowf and Snitter can’t even understand (let alone influence) what’s happening around them, and they have a passive role in their adventure: they’re not heroes, they’re victims. To advance the plot Adams has to constantly draw back the camera onto the human cast, almost to the point where the dogs feel as abandoned by the author as Snitter was by his master. The Plague Dogs ends up being a cynical, dark 70s version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, full of stinking yellow journalism and bureaucratic corruption…and then every few pages we get a scene of dogs huddling under a bush.

Watership Down had the right idea by only giving us the rabbits’ point of view. Humans existed only as supernatural forces akin to Greek titans: inexplicable and terrifying intruders into the rabbits’ world. We didn’t need scenes of Berkshire politicians taking bribes and authorizing a construction project in Sandleford. That would have just thrown the spotlight in too many different directions and onto too many characters, diffusing the light. The Plague Dogs commits exactly this error, and becomes so much the murkier for it.

It also lacks the largeness of its predecessor, its mythical heft. There’s no equivalent to the lapine language, no counterpart to the El-ahrairah stories. The only fantasies are the ones coming from Snitter’s damaged brain – and these aren’t inspiring, they’re sad, because we know what caused them. Adams’ frequent show-offy allusions to classical literature seem out of place. The Plague Dogs is no epic in the mold of Virgil and Homer: it’s a bleak book about a bleak world where heroes don’t exist.

In 1982 Martin Rosen “adapted” The Plague Dog as accurately as he could. I remember gray. Endless gray. It’s the most depressing film ever made about dogs: at least Old Yeller spent most of his film not being shot behind a barn.

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