“Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park,” by Matthew Gilbert. Thomas Dunne Books. $24.99.
The author, who doubles as the Boston Globe TV critic, was a non-dog guy all his life until he and his partner, Tom, purchased a yellow Labrador puppy and named him Toby.
That proves a life changer as he and Toby stride into Boston’s Amory Park, where they meet a colorful array of characters and playmates, which eventually produces a familial feel. “Dogs, those gusts of spirit, bring us into our own hearts, but they are also a bridge to other people,” he writes.
Gilbert introduces the reader into the park’s subculture with a beguiling collection of two-legged types such as the Dog Nazis, Officer Marv, Cell Phone Lady and Saul to Toby’s colorful cohorts Chewy, Bertha, Stevie, Maya, Travis, Chester, Zelda and Burma.
There’s no instant transformation of character here for either Toby or Gilbert. As the title reflects, it’s a year’s portrait accented with daily emotional tugs of confidence and confrontation, often affected by weather and human handlers.
An admitted “dog hater” pre-Toby and Tom, Gilbert blossoms into a big fan, chiefly because of friendships cultivated at Amory, which he initially visits to both socialize and train puppy Toby to become an obedient dog.
Quickly the park becomes the pair’s homeland, and a missed day there leaves a huge void in the life of each.
There are always the unknowns, too, when meeting new dogs and owners. “Walking the Amory periphery, I began to feel like an early twentieth century psychiatrist,” he maintains, “touring a grassy sanatorium, in the midst of making a variety of diagnoses. Strange behavior seemed to spill out whenever I ran into someone at the park.”
Gilbert later characterizes the interactions: “I’d begun to imagine the individual park people I’d been meeting and their respective dogs as little caravans of personality, each member of the pair an ongoing, unfolding story about the other as told to those standing on the field. The variations, it seemed, were endless.”
The intoxicating Amory offers both Toby and Gilbert an uplifting freedom from their home and business lives while cementing a mutual trust and respect in the process. But Gilbert’s strength here are his descriptive brief, punchy slices of life with park mates.
“I started to build friendships with people, some that occasionally reached outside of Amory, some not. People formed relationships as work husbands and work wives at the office; and dog people did something like that in the mornings and evenings. And those park spousal relationships tended to be with people whose dogs were compatible with our own.”
While establishing friendships, Gilbert sees a confident Toby growing up with an ever-increasing comfort zone in the municipal playground, which he describes, “Watching dogs cavort together had quickly become the gold standard of dog-park experiences. I guess it’s always like that. Watching someone you love enjoy himself becomes peak enjoyment.”
The flavorful chronology also delves into humping, dog toys, aggressive owners, dying dogs and yes, even those who ignore or refuse to clean up their dog’s droppings (or call it what you want). But that’s dog culture, right?
With an adventurous spirit and engaging scenarios, “Off the Leash” breathes vivid life into the dog-park landscape while beckoning the reader around every nook and cranny.