Ever since the Renaissance, spoken English has grown steadily more impoverished. The subjects of Elizabeth I delighted in the infinite plasticity of speech, but people now have to cope with a skimpier vocabulary and speak with all the inventiveness of a daily newspaper. Most contemporary novels mirror that linguistic levelling; they favor cool, objective prose that accomplishes its aims as speedily and plainly as possible. Beside them, Leon Rooke’s latest book, Shakespeare ’s Dog, is an exuberant anomaly, like an Elizabethan clown set loose in a crowd of sullen 20th-century office workers.
Shakespeare’s Dog is a triumph of Rooke’s delight in the language, in how it can be twisted and even reinvented. It is written in a pseudo-Elizabethan tongue that effortlessly carries its rich cargo of bawdy epithets and street poetry. But what makes this heady concoction work is Rooke’s narrator, a wordly wise dog called Hooker, who just happens to belong to William Shakespeare. Hooker’s personality, as lively and unpredictable as any in recent literature, turns what might have been an
exercise in antiquarianism into a small masterpiece.
The novel is set in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1580s, when Shakespeare is still young and unknown. Hooker lives in the bard’s yard, where he scraps with his fellow dogs and grows increasingly disgruntled with his master. As Hooker sees it, the talented poet is in danger of sinking into lifelong anonymity. Shakespeare continually promises the dog that they will soon set out for London: “One day I’ll introduce you to the Queen’s lapdog,” says the master, vowing that the canine will be able to indulge himself “with a royal passion.” But the poet is held back by his wife, Anne Hathaway, and by the demands of their three squalling children.
Though Hooker is unflinchingly loyal to Shakespeare, his criticisms of the gifted “Two Foot” are charmingly irreverent—a welcome counterbalance to the usual worshipful portraits. Above all, the dog dislikes his master’s support of conventional society: “the sop hated equality ... I wanted him less romantic, less besotted with words’ doubleturning, less in conspiracy with what his epoch glommed was man and dog’s natural configuration.” Hooker, on the other hand, spends much of the novel outraged at the commonplace cruelties of the times, from the treatment of the
poor to witch-burning. He is something of a leveller: “I
wanted hot revolution ... I wanted anarchy from Newcastle to New Caledonia.”
But if Hooker is higherminded than most humans, he is still a dog. That incontrovertible fact anchors the book in its bedrock of joyous bawdiness. Shakespeare’s Dog is not a novel for the squeamish or the delicately humored. Hooker dearly loves the pleasures of the body. And he loves fighting as much as loving: “We growled and whirled and glob-swallowed fur and spit,” he declares. “We clacked teeth and swirled; we panted and ripped and chomped on ear, tail, and throat; we snarled, sneaped, and roared in a fury over the whole of Two Foot’s garden, long since gone to rot.” uj In the end it is Hooker’s appe| tite—not for love or fighting but I for killing deer—that forces a crisis from which Shakespeare cannot escape. It leads the young poet to London, and Hooker proudly goes with him, the critic and friend whom history has never acknowledged. The novel closes there, with man and beast walking briskly toward a famous future, and it is sad to see them go. -JOHN BEMROSE
When Leon Rooke’s civics teacher insulted him on high school graduation day, she inadvertently engineered his escape from Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Rooke remembers her circulating among his classmates with best wishes only for those prosperous enough to go on to college. Rooke certainly could not afford it. His father left home when Rooke was 2, and his mother worked in a local textile mill. All that the teacher had to say to him was, “And you, what are you going to do?” Today Rooke is 49 years old, a successful writer who is accumulating raves in both the United States and Canada for Shakespeare’s Dog. He is now a Canadian citizen and lives in a big house on a hill in Victoria, but he can still show a little indignation: “The possibility of going to college had not occurred to me. But I was mortally offended by this remark and said to myself, ‘By God I will go to college.’ ”
That story is one of the few formative anecdotes that Rooke will readily recount. For a storyteller who concen-
trates so strongly on the voices of his characters—a multitude speaking in seven collections of short stories and his three novels—he is strangely unassuming about his own life. Indeed, his life seems slightly less real to him than his work. He has not had much practice yet at playing the role of celebrated author: the past three years have been his career’s turning point, beginning with the publication of his first novel, Fat Woman, short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in 1980. A special issue of Canadian Fiction Magazine lauded him in 1981, and in 1982 he won the $20,000 Canada-Australia Literary Prize. But 1983 is proving to be the most public year yet. Next week his Canadian publisher is sending him on his first cross-country tour in honor of Shakespeare's Dog because the firm believes it has a new “superstar” on its hands.
Rooke hesitantly allows details of his background to emerge. He worked in a bank for a year to help pay his way through university and he was already pounding out stories at night on a secondhand typewriter. In 1955 he enrolled in journalism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Then he quickly switched to the drama department, and his first serious work was playwriting. Later, he served the required two years in the army, helped to start an underground newspaper in North Carolina and worked for three years in the first of Lyndon Johnson’s antipoverty programs. His first book of stories was published in the United States in 1968 when he was 32. The next year he married Connie Merriam Raymond, of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary family. The day after the wedding they left for British Columbia because she had a job there teaching English at the University of Victoria.
Rooke finds it hard to explain how a writer lives from day to day: “Sometimes it is absolutely nothing—it is just waiting for something to come, I suppose.” What a writer does as a writer is another matter: he is comfortable talking about his work, even about works in progress. Three potential novels possess him at the moment, along with one other voice—the dying Napoleon’s —which he might turn into a play.
Rooke’s reticence about his own life begins to make sense as more than shyness when he talks about himself as a conduit for other voices: “I take the oldfashioned notion that one of the writer’s jobs is to project a multitude of voices, of identities, and not simply to write of the self.” Those thickets of the self, in which so many North American writers have wandered, hold no attraction for Leon Rooke. His publishers will find it difficult to turn him into a superstar.
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