[3 August 2011]
Probably you’ve heard of Marilyn Monroe. Probably you haven’t heard of Mafia Honey, the small dog she owned for the last two years of her life, a gift from Frank Sinatra presented to her shortly after her divorce from Arthur Miller. Scottish-bred and fiesty, Mafia Honey—“Maf” to his friends—is the narrator of this quirky and very smart novel.
A warning, though: this is not really a book about Marilyn Monroe. It’s not even a novel about Marilyn Monroe. It’s rather a short book at 277 pages, and Marilyn doesn’t even show up until page 60. Certainly she’s a presence here, as are Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood, Lee Strasberg and Sammy Davis, Jr. But it isn’t really a novel about any of them, either. Rather, it’s a rumination on any number of ideas, a recreation of a particular time and place, maybe even an opportunity for some philosophical musings about art and artifice and reality. It’s also very funny from time to time. Its narrator is, after all, a dog.
If you’re looking for revelations about Marilyn’s life, though, this is not the dog for you. Like James Lever’s Me Cheeta, which used the conceit of Johnny Weissmuller’s chimpanzee co-star narrating the story of his life in order to gain perspective on the humans involved, Maf the Dog is both about the narrator, and not. This sounds more confusing than it really is, because after all, the experiences of a terrier are inherently limited and possibly not all that interesting.
Still, if you’re going to read a book about a dog, you might as well read a book about Marilyn Monroe’s dog. The Monroe of this book is deftly sketched, a woman of almost magnetic beauty and, as revealed in a crucial scene at New York’s Actor’s Studio, a legitimate actress, as well. Any woman capable of bringing tears to the eyes of a director like Lee Strasberg has something going on, and the scenes in which the sex-symbol artifice of Marilyn is peeled back to reveal the artist underneath are among the strongest scenes in the book.
Elsewhere, Marilyn is revealed as almost maniacally underconfident, unmoored by her recent divorce and now surrounded by intellectuals and admirers who are far smarter than she is—or so she believes, as do they. She tries to keep up by reading Dostoevsky and pretending to read Rabelais and de Tocqueville, by listening to their conversations and asking to be taken seriously. Some of them seem to do so, some of the time. Some of them, of course, do not.
Author O’Hagan is at his best, however, when creating the canine world-view of his narrator. Maf has a strong sense of his destiny, “the sort of dog,” we are informed early on, “who is set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story.”
A book like this is so inherently absurd that it only succeeds when the absurdity is grounded in unvarnished sensory detail, and there is plenty of that here. Maf’s philosophical musings are leavened with strong doses of material grit, not all of it pleasant, as the pooch has a highly developed sense of taste. In one overdone apartment, “I padded into the dining room and found a stone cat. The urgent, thrusting ugliness of the place left me panting as I wandered the rooms, avoiding several lifetimes of horror, ornaments in brass, frothing oceans of filigree, and tartan rugs. Tartan!”
It’s this contrast between the dog’s unswerving assurance and his mistress’s self-doubt that provide much of the frisson in this story. Another source of tension is the disparity between Maf’s reliable sensory experience and the esoteric concerns of many of the human characters. It’s no coincidence that the most vivid human being on display is Sinatra—in his vicious boorishness, his barking territoriality, he is presented as something quite doglike himself.
Meanwhile, at a party hosted by Alfred Kazin, the poet Frank O’Hara says things like, “Trust is an intimate conspiracy… Trust is Mae West’s asshole,” and a young woman named Susan (Sontag, I believe?) declares, “I am writing something about the comedy of high seriousnes, not an essay so much as a series of jottings. A cascade of pensées.”
Happily, Maf Honey is there to bail the reader out when such posing threatens to become suffocating, which is often. If there’s one thing this book does unequivocally well, it makes the reader grateful that s/he has never known any of these self-absorbed people, and never will. As Maf puts it, “Every human has his day. Yet they forget we are all animals. Let me tell you, speciesism is no better than racism; it comes from the same dense briar of unimagination.”
In this as in most other things, Maf’s observations are spot-on and delightful. He is certainly a dog worth spending some time with; it’s just a shame that the same can’t be said for his human companions.