For those of you who recall our wedding (or those who have heard Jodi and me speak at the engaged couples retreats around these parts), you may remember that the only detail I was specific about in the ceremony was the Old Testament reading, from the Book of Tobit, Chapter 8, verses 4-8. The back story, about the faithful but afflicted Tobit, his son Tobiah, a long-lost kinsman, and a cursed young bride, is retold in the novel Tobit’s Dog by Michael N. Richard.
Richard re-sets this ancient story as a mystery of sorts, set in the rural South during the Depression, and opens with a vignette of the titular canine visiting a local dump with his master, who is looking for discarded furniture to repair and sell. The dog is torn between the lure of his senses and the love of his master, but ultimately, chooses to follow and obey and is rewarded for it. It’s a compelling analogy to our relationship with God — but I was nervous: if the entire book were written in this way, it could be heavy-handed.
Thankfully, it isn’t. Instead, the opening scene sets the theme for the rest of the book, in which all of the major characters are conflicted in some way and are either moving toward their Master or further away.
Though the story is told in an easy and often humorous style, the subject matter is dark — the apparent mutilation and lynching of a teenage boy, rape and racism, and a tragic family cycle of alcoholism and abuse all figure into the tale, as does spiritual warfare as conducted by the old man’s unusual dog and a talented and world-wise traveling musician who may be Tobit’s cousin but doesn’t seem to be from “around here.”
It is a Catholic book, featuring Catholic characters living their Catholic faith, but you don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to follow the tale or enjoy it — and in fact, nearly all of the characters find themselves questioning their faith and why bad things happen to good folks. As a bonus, for those who know the Book of Tobit or the three archangels named in Scripture and celebrated today, there is a strong connection between the book and today’s feast — but that’s probably more fun to uncover after the fact. As for the novel, I recommend it highly!