Book Review: The Hounds of Heaven

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Bodio's dog

 

Steve Bodio is one of America’s greatly underrated treasures. He writes like an angel about a wide range of fascinating topics; he is one of the most widely-read and well-educated men I have ever come across, a twenty-first century version of an eccentric Victorian polymath; when he writes about topics close to his heart, he has the rare ability to weave emotion and objective scientific observation together; and he knows (or has known—time has thinned the ranks) practically everyone worth knowing, famous and obscure, rich and poor, artist and scientist, from New Mexico (where he lives physically) to Kazakhstan (where he lives spiritually).

We live in a time when polymaths are rarer than honest politicians and, whenever one does float to the surface of public perception, he is regarded with deep suspicion. Everyone and everything has to be quickly and easily pigeonholed in our Age of Single-Minded Experts: if you’re an artist, you can’t possibly be a scientist; if you’re a naturalist, you most certainly cannot write fiction; if you’re a cynologist, what the hell can you be expected to know about paleontology? When obvious exceptions such as Peter Matthiessen do arise, they are explained away as anomalies: Well, after all, how can you expect anything else from someone like Matthiessen when he was really a CIA agent all along? But Steve Bodio is a genuine polymath without being a CIA agent. As far as I know.

So what do you do with a book like Hounds of Heaven? Really now, is it about dogs or is it about falconry? Is it about pigeons or paleontology? Is it about hunting or is it about cultural anthropology or is it about genetics? And if it’s supposed to be a serious work, why is it so funny? Where the hell in the bookstore do we stock the damned thing?

I suspect some or all of those specious and asinine arguments will be voiced.

The fact is, the book is about all those things and more, it is indeed a serious work that will make you laugh out loud, and my recommendation is to stock it everywhere. It’s that good.

On one level Hounds of Heaven is about a quest, a search for an almost mythical beast that takes Bodio from a vodka-soaked apartment in Brooklyn to an unexpected and interrupted life in New Mexico, to that vast, high, central Asian region dismissed by a former presidential candidate as, “all those –stans,” where once Tamerlane and the Scourge of God and Marco Polo roamed, a region still inhabited by fierce and independent men who love deeply their horses, their eagles, and above all their dogs. It may be that Africa was the cradle of man and Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization, but the rugged steppes and mountains of central Asia were probably the cradle of man’s best friend, and very certainly the cradle of that unique variety known as sight-hounds.

And on another level Hounds of Heaven is a love story, for no matter how useful or scientifically intriguing dogs may be, ultimately our relationship with them is based on mutual love, and anyone who has ever shared his life with a dog will admit he has learned at least as much from his faithful friend as his friend ever learned from him.

Finally, several years ago, before Steve ever started this book, I asked him to vet an article I had written for a magazine in which I posited the theory that the only way to save virtually every dog recognized by either the AKC or the UKC was to outcross to related, but genetically different, breeds. In other words, if you want to return the German shepherd, for example, to the healthy, long-lived specimen it once was, open up the gene pool and go back to some of the distantly related breeds that prior to the end of the nineteenth century used to be lumped under the loose category “sheepdog.” Try a Malinois or Groenendael or Tervueren, try a Kuvasz, hell, try an Anatolian. If those don’t work, go farther afield, but for God’s sake stop breeding crippled, short-lived beauties to crippled, short-lived beauties. I’d rather have a German shepherd that looks like the vaguely mutty ones von Stephanitz had, that was capable of living its full twelve or thirteen years free of the more than fifty heritable diseases man has bred into and concentrated in that noble breed.

It turned out Steve had been studying (of course) and thinking about this very issue, and he kindly corrected some of my errors and told me to sic ‘em. Steve goes into this issue in depth, but very readable depth. If you love dogs, or even if you’ve ever loved just a single dog, you will love Hounds of Heaven and its cast of unusual, eccentric, and passionate characters, two-legged as well as four-legged.

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