In her 2004 New Yorker essay “Dog Trouble,” author Cathleen Schine describes the harrowing experience of trying to tame Buster, the adorable, helplessly mad mutt she rescued. Her noble adoption coincided with the recent breakup of her marriage. But Buster quickly began to reveal a volatile, destructive temperament—he was prone to biting himself and nearly everyone around him. Schine’s determination to keep Buster eventually alienated her from friends, family, and even the sympathetic dog owners in her Upper West Side neighborhood. Together with her new lesbian partner, Schine sought out dog trainers, dog shrinks, psychopharmacologists, and a pet psychic, making every effort to soothe his disturbed soul. The distemper Buster had suffered as a puppy, however, doomed him to a life of violent behavior, and as Schine’s vast galaxy of bruises and bites continued to expand, and her fear of the Cujo-like canine became paralyzing, she arrived at the inevitable: There was nothing inhumane about putting Buster down. Months later, the author would discover the more pleasurable realms of dog ownership when she brought home a healthy cairn terrier named Hector.
Schine delves into that very world in her new novel, The New Yorkers—a swift-moving, gently poignant romantic comedy of manners set on one of the last remaining blocks of rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side. Romance develops among the Homo sapiens, to be sure—this street, like the city itself, is a veritable island of misfit toys. But the real love in these pages emerges between the misanthropic bipeds and their furry four-legged friends.
An unnamed narrator introduces us to a cast of lonely hearts, starting with 39-year-old music teacher Jody and her ghostly white pit bull, Beatrice, who share the studio apartment she has lived in for over 20 years. Jody, whose chatter is as delightfully filterless as a Lucky Strike, is proud to call herself a spinster—until she becomes embroiled in two love triangles after many sexless years. Jody falls for her across-the-street neighbor Everett, a middle-aged, recently divorced chemist whose gorgeous smile clashes with his curmudgeonly personality. As she waits for him to return her affections, another neighbor, Simon—a 46-year-old self- described “elderly young man” and “asocial” social worker—finds himself totally smitten with her. Neither man is a dog owner; in fact, Everett believes dogs are “inconveniences.” “The very word,” he thinks, “was used in phrases that were exclusively negative: Someone dogged your steps or there were dog days on which you were dog tired. . . . You lay down with dogs and woke up with fleas, after which you went to the dogs.”
Everett is intrigued by Jody, but his thirst for youth draws him to his ebullient, recently heartbroken, and very attentive young neighbor, 26-year-old copy editor Polly, who moves into the building on the heels of a bad breakup. The previous occupant had given up his lease by way of suicide, leaving behind a brand-new puppy. Polly names him Howdy, and he quickly endears himself to everyone who crosses his path—even Everett. Meanwhile, Polly’s brilliant slacker brother George-—living in squalor in the East Village-—is spending more and more time at Polly’s to rouse her spirits, and to play with the dog. He quickly discovers there’s no better babe magnet than a cute pup, so it becomes easier for Polly to convince him to move in with her.
One neighbor proudly resists the charms of canines: Doris, an angry schoolmarm who launches a crusade to all but rid the block of the hairy creatures. She especially despises Beatrice for peeing on the front wheel of her white SUV, and also Jamie, the gay proprietor of neighborhood hangout the Go Go Grill, for allowing dogs (including his own pair of pooches) to enter his dining room.
Urbanites share a unique relationship with their dogs. With square footage at a premium, and a yard practically unheard of, even the most reclusive dog owner has to leave his or her apartment several times a day. The friendly nature of dogs forces their masters into social situations as their charges bark at and inspect intimate body parts of other dogs; sniff, lick, and leap on other people; or simply elicit the affection of passersby who can’t resist petting them. Like true New Yorkers, Jody, Jamie, Everett, and Simon lived side by side for years without ever having spoken, but their dogs ensured their lives would eventually intersect. Schine uses the historic heat wave of 2003 to get a quiet storm roiling, landing Jody and Polly into the wrong (for them) lovers’ beds—Jody into Simon’s, Polly into Everett’s. At least there’s an end to their respective dry spells, some self-discoveries to be made, and pleasant company during some particularly trying times.
The breezy storytelling in The New Yorkers is deceptive: The novel offers more than a sweet story of puppy love. Schine strikes a rare, deeply personal, and very loving chord as she portrays the way these devoted pets elicit joy from the depressed (except once, when it’s already too late) and humanity from the merciless, and inspire flirtations and encounters between the shy and monastic. Schine may have convinced this reader-—a borderline-crazy cat lady who has never owned a dog—that these pets are as much New Yorkers as the people who walk them.