Dogs have always played a large role in Mark Doty’s life. They pawed at the fringes of his two harrowing memoirs, Firebird and Heaven’s Coast, and at last in this sweet, occasionally heartbreaking book they get a volume all of their own.
The dogs in question are Arden and Beau, black and golden retrievers who came into Doty’s life around the time his lover was diagnosed with AIDS. They departed around the time that Doty himself had finished with the most lacerating part of his grieving.
Dog books abound with stories of how animals are astonishing mirrors for their human counterparts, of language spoken in the gesture and eye contact only four-legged friends can provide.
Although Doty cannot help but describe such moments, too—and they are, frankly, beautifully told—Dog Years respects Beau and Arden’s animal singularity. Doty describes them lovingly, with poetic specificity—Arden’s rich, lustrous black coat; Beau’s courageous dignity through disease. In one of the book's most touching sections, he catalogs Arden’s late-life pleasures, from “Beach” to “Watching.”
There is a unique paradigm shift here that every dog owner of a certain type will recognize—Doty clearly rearranged his life around Beau and Arden, and not the other way around.
As much as he loved these dogs, Doty is willing to admit there is something creaturely, otherworldly and unknowable about them. Even in hindsight, he does not anthropomorphize. In this regard, they emerge in Dog Years as the purest symbol of love—or perhaps love in its most complex form: an object of affection that can be loved, but never entirely understood.