Dog love, bow-wowing into immortality


"Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had," by Rick Bass. Houghton Mifflin. 188 pages. $22.

Dog books usually go something like this: Person gets dog, person loves dog, dog dies. Lassie may come home, but Sounder expires. Old Yeller gets shot. Fido buys the farm.

It's clear from the title that Colter the dog won't live to see the end of Rick Bass' memoir. But Bass' 16th book isn't just another puppy-snuff tome. Instead, the poet and novelist has created a quietly passionate book about walking through the woods on crisp autumn days, about bird hunting and nature, a lyrical tribute to the relationship between people and dogs that is so graceful and restrained it reads more like poetry than prose.

Colter is the runt of the litter of German shorthairs, brown and skinny and cross-legged, a dog nobody wanted. Bass saw that he was special from the start.

"Something about the goofy little knot-headed boy made me laugh. How we fall into grace. You can't work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you unbidden."

He takes the dog home and names him for "the mountain man who outran a whole tribe of Blackfeet." He takes him out into the woods by his remote Montana ranch to hunt grouse. It isn't long before Bass discovers his dog is a "raging genius."

"Colter was born wild, born ready. In that sense he was irreducible. All the rest of his training would involve a paring down from that initial and innate fullness, rather than a building-up. Out of such gradual reduction, his force, his excellence, magnified."

Time and again they go hunting. Time and again they return home empty handed.

Colter gets trained in finding and flushing fowl. Bass gets trained in shooting. They start bringing home birds.

It doesn't matter. What's so beautiful about this book is the way Bass describes their experiences bounding through the woods together. In a straightforward, unsentimental manner, he makes the reader understand that for him, hunting wasn't really about birds. It was about the hours together by themselves in the woods, the smell of wood smoke trailing from the chimney of a lone farmhouse, the glorious scenery. It was about the magic feeling of being alive that creeps into his bones when he hunts with Colter, and the fitful sleep that comes later, after a little football on TV for Bass and a corn dog smothered in mustard for Colter.

"A dog creates, transcribes a new landscape for you. A dog like Colter sharpens your joy of all the seasons, and for a while, sometimes a long while, such a dog seems capable, of holding time in place -- of pinning it and holding it taut. And then it is as if the world is taken away. Dogs like that are young for what seems like a very long time."

Even though Colter's death is inevitable, by the time it occurs, Bass' grief feels surprisingly raw. Colter is gone, yet Bass still feels they will hunt together one day.

And why shouldn't he? Truly great friendships are, after all, immortal.

Maria Blackburn is the assistant to The Sun's book editor and the owner of a needy black Lab mix named Scout. She has been known to bake homemade peanut butter dog biscuits and, on occasion, dresses her beloved canine in tiaras and superhero costumes.

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