For the Love of Dogs: Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Good Boy

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How do you make sense of a childhood haunted by a voice that whispers, “You are not you?” How do you process an adolescence at times so uncomfortable that you spend night after night at home, eating hot dog stew and playing piano for your grandmother? How, as a woman, do you take stock of the years lived as a boy, and then as a man? Perhaps, suggests Jennifer Finney Boylan, the dogs in her life can offer some insight.

“This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been,” writes Boylan in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. Boylan is perhaps best known for She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, published in 2003—the first best-selling work by a transgender American writer. Because Good Dog is Boylan’s fourth memoir, readers might wonder whether it treads the same ground as earlier works. Fear not. Reading Boylan’s memoirs is like working on a three-dimensional puzzle that mysteriously creates space for more pieces. Each of Boylan’s memoirs, complete unto itself, yields insight into the author and those closest to her, and Good Boy is as affecting and funny as anything Boylan has ever written.

It’s not always easy for her to recall the boy she used to be. “[T]here were times when I remembered my younger self the way you’d remember a dear friend you’d lost, for reasons you no longer quite understood. Where was that ‘boy,’ that adorable nerd who’d spent his days sitting on the banks of a stream in Pennsylvania… ?” In remembering the various dogs in her life, she hopes to evoke that child: “It’s in the love of dogs,” she writes, “and my love for them, that I can best now take the measure of that vanished boy and his endless desire.”

The boy she describes is a quirky, imaginative kid more comfortable tending to his seahorses than picking up a baseball glove. His frequent companion is an ill-tempered Dalmatian named Playboy. Boylan recalls the day a little boy named Zero is dropped off by his mother for a sleepover. Playboy growls at the new guest. “’Does your dog bite?’ [Zero] asked. I thought about it. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Pretty much.’” It is Playboy that Jimmy drags along into an old refrigerator box decorated with Magic Marker and labeled ROBOTRON 9000 THE ANSER MACHINE. When family members walk by, they are expected to write down questions on index cards and slip them through a slot in the box.

Boylan has mastered the art of setting scenes. The depiction of a boy, his friend, and his dog wandering through the fields appears quintessentially normal—until, in one quick stroke, she reveals the anguish that resides just under the surface:

One day Jimmy Slingshot and I came upon a huge pile of dead pigs in a field. Flies swarmed around them.

What did we do? Just what you’d expect: we got out our slingshots and shot pebbles at the carcasses. That being the custom among our people.

I would, of course, have rather been back at our house, secretly experimenting with my mother’s pink plastic rollers. But how could a person put this desire into words? The only thing you could do with such yearning—even if it was, ultimately, the utter truth of your being—was to keep it locked down in a hole.

As his parents dote on his sister Cyndy and her beloved horse, Checkmate—at the age of thirteen, she has become Pennsylvania’s top-ranked junior rider—Jimmy attaches himself to another dog, a fat, gas-passing Dalmatian who joins the family on Jimmy’s eleventh birthday. Graced with a bald tail and eyes that ooze brown goo, Penny, Boylan writes, “[is] kind of a loser, an elephant seal of a creature haplessly waddling from room to room in hopes of finding a better world.” But each night, Jimmy carries her into his room. He tucks her into his bed and wraps his arms around her. Their heads share a pillow. Boylan is particularly adept in evoking sibling relationships, so often characterized by caustic comments and irrational competition. Here, Cyndy points out that the pathetic dog is simply a reflection of her little brother: “’I’m serious,’ Cyndy said. ‘Take a good, hard look. That’s your dog.’” Jimmy, however, needs no reminder: “[W]hat I knew in my heart, and what gave me an endlessly lingering shame, was this: I’m Penny.” In embracing his sad-sack dog, Jimmy acknowledges all that is awkward and pitiable about himself.

Eventually, Jimmy kicks the old dog out of bed and rejects her. “I had loved my sad, gelatinous dog with all my heart, for years and years… [but now] [s]he wasn’t cool enough for the person I was trying to become,” Boylan writes. Certainly, there’s a logical explanation for Jimmy’s hardness of heart: “[O]ne by one I put the things of my childhood aside, and Penny was one of them,” she writes. But perhaps Boylan speaks to the capacity for casual cruelty in each of us.

In describing how the dogs of her childhood are treated—adored, rebuffed, tolerated, coddled, and even pitied—the author tells us everything we need to know about the Boylan family. When Cyndy returns from her first year of college, she brings home Matt the Mutt, an impulsive little mixed breed. In a particularly funny scene, Matt—or Matthew, as Jimmy’s father calls him—ravishes poor old Penny, pees on the wall in the kitchen, and trots out to the living room to hump an elderly lady. “’That Matthew is a character,’ my father says in a voice that suggests he finds the dog’s antics charming.” When Jimmy suggests a remedy—“like, dog-training school?”—“[m]y father smiles wanly at this, as if I have suggested that we might teach the dog how to operate a forklift.” This is a family as notable for its forbearance as its eccentricities.

Good Boy’s central tension, of course, emerges from Jimmy’s desire for intimacy—love, understanding, passion—and the way it is continually thwarted by an inability to reveal his true self. Keeping the secret takes a terrible toll, often in the form of an overwhelming anger that wells up unexpectedly. Here is a scene that takes place in the classroom of the local elementary school: Jimmy’s mother has enrolled him in a Saturday program for building gasoline-powered, model airplanes, and he has been assigned to the desk of an unknown girl named Denise. Boylan writes, “I held her little plastic yellow barrettes in my fingers… My hands fell upon Denise’s crayons… With malice aforethought, I snapped each one in half… I sat there stunned by the thing I had done and pictured this Denise coming into school and finding her crayons broken, her eyes filling with tears at the random injustice of the world. I wasn’t sorry.”

It is this same “truth,” later in life, that will “[make] it impossible to reach another soul, or to be reached. How is it possible to be in love, to be at your most naked and vulnerable with another person, if all the while you know that you are lying to her?” Whenever a romantic relationship begins to feel serious, Jimmy sabotages it: “the moment a woman got close to me, I realized that I had to either tell her the truth about my bifurcated soul or else just have a relationship based on a lie. I’d noodle around with these women, open myself up to them a little bit—but then the moment my private world felt threatened I’d have to disappear.”

Dogs, however, he can continue to love. “It was never the love the dogs gave me that mattered; it was the love that I could give them, especially during the years of my life when I could not figure out how to express the gnarled-up passions of my own heart.” The dogs are markedly less reserved than Jimmy: they bark, they jump, they hump, they run off into the woods, they launch themselves onto the bosoms of ladies who come over to play bridge with Jimmy’s mother. They feel perfectly entitled to sneak onto the bed in the middle of the night. In this sense, they are a perfect foil for the conflicted young author.

In an earlier memoir, Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, Boylan tells of a ghost that inhabits his family’s home—“an older woman with long blonde hair, wearing a white garment like a nightgown,” she writes, “[h]er eyes a pair of small red stars.” Who, or what, was this spirit? Could she alone see the real Jimmy Boylan? Was she a vision of the boy’s future self? Was she invisible to the rest of the family like Jimmy’s true identity? In Good Boy, the dogs—like that spirit—possess a purpose beyond amusing and delighting us. Clearly, they embody human qualities. They are at various times selfish, indifferent, and compulsive. The author tells of Brown, a Labrador that spends hours swimming circles in the family’s pool and ingesting so much water that she almost dies. Like Jimmy Boylan, she’s drawn to seemingly inexplicable behaviors. We learn also about Lucy, a so-called Golden Retriever that Jimmy, now newly married, buys from a pig farmer. Despite Jimmy’s hope that the dog will become the ideal companion for his young family, Lucy disdains them all—defecating in young Zach Boylan’s bed after he writes a paper for school entitled “Our Dog Hates Us.”

But Boylan also writes of dogs that are reliable, devoted, nurturing, and utterly content in being loved. Alex is a Gordon setter that comes into Jimmy Boylan’s life after his best friend Zero finds the young dog chained to a loading dock. Jimmy, Zero, and Alex—a dog, it turns out, of uncommon loyalty—enjoy years and years in each other’s company. Eventually, Zero gives his dog to Jimmy—the ultimate act of trust between two friends.

For decades, Jimmy Boylan harbors the hope that “I might be somebody different, if only I [am] loved deeply enough.” Ultimately the author will be transformed by love. At the age of forty, he will open his heart and reveal his long-held secret to his wife, Deedie. Following this revelation, they and their two children will be joined by a devoted Labrador named Ranger. During an especially precarious time for the family—as Jimmy makes the physical, and very public, transition to become Jenny—Ranger offers unstinting love and companionship. “Our children would lie in the dog bed by the wood stove, doing their homework as Ranger slept beside them, his paws in the air. Or he’d lift up his old gray face with an expression that said, ‘Don’t you know how much I love you? Don’t you know that this is the only reason we are here, to love one another, and to be loved?’”

On so many levels, he is the dog that Boylan has waited for all her life.

Tucker Coombe writes about nature and dogs. She lives in Cincinnati. More from this author →