The premise of Carolyn Parkhurst’s first novel shimmers with idiosyncratic intrigue: Imagine you feel you desperately need to know something and the one creature who can guide you to that knowledge has four paws and a big tail. Might you try to teach your dog to talk? In The Dogs Of Babel, the answer is yes.
Paul Iverson, a linguistics professor, returns home one evening to discover that his adored wife, Lexy, is dead, having tumbled from the top of a tall apple tree in the backyard. The only witness to her fall was the family dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lorelei. Although the police conclude that the fall was accidental, Paul uncovers strange facts about his wife’s last hours that, in his mind at least, suggest something other than a taste for apples led her to climb the tree. Taking a leave of absence from his university, he throws his energy into his old friend and new pupil, Lorelei.
In between canine training sessions, Paul pores over the archaeology of his all-too-ephemeral marriage. While his musings begin as a paean to his winsome and spontaneous wife, they thicken with foreboding, as he grows increasingly candid about her imperfections — in particular, her reckless temper. Lexy, who made her living as a creator of fanciful papier-mâché masks, dwelt in a world of artistic transformation where imagination scorned quotidian care. As clues about her death emerge and hints of magic realism filter in like pixie dust, Paul grows certain that Lexy has left some sort of encrypted message, if only he can labor hard enough to find it. He labors so hard and so earnestly, in fact, that one may wonder if Paul merely represents a woman’s fantasy of the lengths to which a devoted and despondent spouse might go.
Even so, Parkhurst tells her tale with considerable skill. She can slice and dice a character in a couple of well-chosen strokes, as in Paul’s recollection of his first wife, Maura, ”whose voice filled our house like a thick mortar, sealing every crack and corner.” In contrast, when Paul meets Lexy almost a year after his divorce, he delights in her speech as ”an easy thing, plain and open, with none of the byzantine turns and traps I found myself caught in when I talked to Maura.” Too bad, then, that Parkhurst’s dialogue doesn’t always measure up. On rare but troubling occasions, exchanges between Lexy and Paul sink into clichéd patter, as when Lexy stalls after Paul’s first marriage proposal: ”’I just need some time,’ she said. ‘To trust that this is all real.’ ‘Don’t worry,”’ I said. ‘I’m not going anywhere.”’ Are they rehearsing for a soap opera audition?
For an author employing such a gimmicky premise, Parkhurst packs a serious literary arsenal, which she wields to good effect. Layers of allegory, symbolism, and mythic reference add texture and tension to the plot’s unfolding. The name Lexy itself can be read as a gloss on lexicon, one that Paul, a disciple as faithful as his biblical antecedent, tries to catalog. Lexy named Lorelei for the Rhine maiden who lures sailors to their deaths with her siren song, underscoring the notion that Paul’s desire to hear the dog’s voice could lead to his undoing. Just how far should an individual probe in the name of science and love before perversion outstrips purpose? Despite Parkhurst’s flirtations with the supernatural in exploring that question, ”The Dogs of Babel” remains at its core a humanistic parable of the heart’s confusions.