Note: The Backlist is a series of occasional reviews of worthy books published in years past.
“It’s a hard world for animals,” says Rowf, one of the two canine narrators in Richard Adams’ 1977 novel “The Plague Dogs.”
Indeed it is, and Adams leaves no doubt in readers’ minds in his hard-edged, polemical third novel, the spiritual cousin to his first, the world-wide bestseller “Watership Down.”
This is the tragic story of Rowf and his friend Snitter, two dogs who have been brutalized in an all-purpose English animal-research facility, their escape, and their harrowing efforts to stay alive. The Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental — the acronym A.R.S.E. is a tipoff that Adams isn’t going for subtlety — is a moral stain, a leprous monument to cruelty ironically situated in the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Country of northern England.
Snitter, a black-and-white terrier, was sold to the lab by the nasty sister of his former master, who was in a terrible car accident; he has memories of “good” men and gentle touches. Rowf, a shaggy black mutt, has no such illusions. He has known only torture and he trusts no human. He often finds himself thinking that such suffering “for” men is his true purpose in life, but has vowed to die before being returned to the horrors of the lab.
There is brutality aplenty here, most notably in the beginning, before Snitter and Rowf escape. All manner of animals, from monkeys to mice, cats to rabbits, are abused at A.R.S.E. The lead scientist, Dr. Boycott, makes clear that the purpose of the experiments is usually commercial. But sometimes it’s simply the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Rowf, for example, is nearly drowned day after day in a water tank, forced to swim for his life until exhaustion sinks him.
“Two hours, twenty minutes, fifty-three and two-fifths seconds,” the good doctor says clinically after Rowf has foundered yet again. “I think that’s about six and a half minutes longer than Wednesday’s test … It’s rather remarkable how regular the increase seems to be.”
Snitter has been the subject of an imperfect, unexplained, brain surgery, which has left him in possession of a fractured, scattered reality and surreally precognitive dreams and visions. Adams artfully renders the dog’s disorienting perceptions and dialogue, creating a palpable sense of wanting to protect Snitter.
The men — all men; Adams is little interested in female points of view, as the otherwise admirable “Watership Down” made clear — who work at the lab range from heartless to thoughtless. Ironically, when the two dogs make a miraculous escape into the real world (Snitter is terribly alarmed when he sees that the humans have “removed” all the houses from the soaring hills surrounding the lab) they find themselves threatened by much more passionate men.
The local farmers who object to starving dogs killing their sheep want them shot. Meanwhile, Digby Driver, an opportunistic journalist from London is hell-bent on creating the most sensational stories about the dogs as possible, no matter which side he has to play for. He is interested only in stirring up controversy and manipulating emotions. Connecting dots beyond all reason, he conjures up the name “plague dogs” and makes their escape and exploits a matter of national political concern.
Once “free,” Snitter and Rowf suffer terribly. From hunger. From fear. Cold. They befriend a fox (here called a tod; his lake-country dialect, shared by local farmers, requires focus; reading Adams’ phonetic renderings aloud is its own reward) who shows them how to steal eggs and hens and take down the occasional ewe.
The dogs, sometimes with the fox, travel the wonderfully named peaks and fells above the lakes. Lake-country “fellwalker” Alfred Wainwright provided majestic drawings of the various features and occasional maps to show the dogs’ progress.
Eventually, humankind brings its worst to bear, literally calling out the army and air force to destroy two half-starved animals who only tried to flee the pain and suffering inflicted on them by other humans.
Though undeniably moving — the final 60 pages or so are riveting — the book is rather lumpy. Adams bludgeons the reader with constant asides about humanity’s brutal foibles and his set pieces seldom ring true. He inserts himself into the narrative in various entertaining, illuminating ways. All of that contributes to a sense that this is a fable, an argument, a justified but sometimes clumsy scream of rage on behalf of tortured innocents.
It is also a love-song to a part of England most Americans have never even heard of. Adams’ rich and loving descriptions of the fells and becks (creeks) and farms stand in stark contrast to the encrustations of “civilization” that is pursuing the dogs.
Adams attached a curious, but satisfying coda to his original manuscript, with its painfully ambiguous ending, for American readers. In the coda, he sets up an almost Socratic dialogue between two men on a sailboat, in which he explores the various arguments regarding animal experimentation. It’s didactic but undeniably compelling stuff for anyone interested in the deeper issues raised by the novel.
Beyond that appendage we get one final glimpse of Snitter and Rowf as they desperately try to escape to a mythical Isle of Dog. In Snitter’s final vision, he sees a Man bestride a wheel whose spokes are all the animals of the world.
The man “ceaselessly lashed and lashed the creatures with a whip to make them drive the wheel round. … And yet, as (Snitter) himself could see, the man had misconceived his task, for in fact the wheel turned of itself and all he needed to do was keep it balanced upon its delicate axle by adjusting, as might be necessary, the number of animals upon this side or that.”
Somewhat surprisingly, given all that’s come before, Adams eases up on his relentless accusations against humanity at the end, offering not one or two, but several redeeming characters of a less brutal — if still complicated — nature.
“The Plague Dogs” is imperfectly executed and at times more than ham-handed. But it’s still a powerful indictment of humanity’s inhumanity wrapped within an exciting story, heart-wrenchingly told by a pair of innocents who will inspire the most ferocious protective instincts in the sensitive reader.