By Alan Lazar. Atria Paperback, $15.
Throw in a plenty of love, lots of adventure and a doggy travelogue and you have all the key ingredients for this perfectly named novel about a three-legged dog with a knack for survival.
Yes, Nelson lives on the edge throughout this odyssey that takes the reader – and Nelson, a beagle-poodle mix – from Nelson, N.H., to Chico, Calif., with many stops in between in this page-turner told from a dog’s perspective.
The first stop is a Boston pet shop with an indignant owner who is not interested in selling mutts but is doing the breeder a favor, since she usually brings him purebred beagles and poodles. After seemingly an eternity in this puppy’s mind, he is adopted by a young Albany, N.Y., couple, Katey and Don, returning from their Italy honeymoon.
Katey, a concert pianist, quickly becomes Nelson’s Great Love, and Don, well, he simply puts up with dog, after losing his professor position at a nearby university. While Katey is gone on a short concert tour, Don inadvertedly leaves the yard gate open, allowing Nelson to venture out on a meandering pathway that takes him thousands of miles and numerous stops.
Upon returning, Katey becomes highly upset and spends weeks searching for the dog while her marriage unravels as a result of Don’s failure to find work, followed by his adulterous affairs.
Nelson is eventually rescued by a trucker, Thatcher Stevens, and begins to bond with him, only to become homeless again in Kalispell, Mont., when Stevens becomes involved in a bar fight and is hospitalized with injuries.
The dog’s life takes a totally new twist when it meets up with another stray, Lucy, and they are befriended and fed by an elderly Kalispell woodworker. The sometimes feisty Nelson fends off a coyote attack on him and Lucy and later places himself in the middle of the road to alert motorists when his 80-year-old acquaintance collapses of a stroke in the street nearby.
While attempting to save one life, Nelson nearly loses his after being struck by a motor biker, eventually losing a leg in the process. A good-samaritan veterinarian amputates the injured limb and seeks to find a home without success for the beleaguered dog.
Throughout this narrative, Nelson’s ability to make sense out of scents serves him well. They are his antennas for joy and excitement as well as warnings for trouble ahead. The stench of death in a Kalispell shelter and his ability to sense his time was almost up, prompts him to bolt through an open door to freedom on the day he is scheduled to be euthanized.
Losing faith in humans, Nelson heads for the woods and is adopted short term by a gray wolf pack before being forced to flee for his life, taking a zigzag route that ends up in the Northern California town of Chico, marking seven years on the road.
Nelson dodges death again, when he is adopted by a single father and his son shortly before he is scheduled to be euthanized. Then a bizarre mix of circumstances involving an online video, a failed relationship and a compassionate father produce a Hollywoodesque ending.
“No matter how much the darkness he had encountered in his life weighed him down, he still felt the incurable joy when he smelled grass in the air. Good food still made his heart beat with excitement. Affectionate moments with humans remained a rich pleasure for the three-legged dog,” says Lazar.
“Roam” is a celebration of life cast in a vivid cultural context. Its adventurous spirit and psychological turbulence produce a tone packed with true grit and tough realism that will keep you captivated from start to finish.