André Alexis delves into intellectual battles in Fifteen Dogs

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      Fifteen Dogs
      By André Alexis. Coach House, 160 pp, softcover

      Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

      The double-edged sword of intellect takes centre stage in Toronto-based author André Alexis’s latest novel, Fifteen Dogs, which begins with two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, slinging back a few Sleemans at one of Toronto’s oldest watering holes while mocking the ineptitude of human language: “You’d swear they understand each other, though not one of them has any idea what their words actually mean to another. How can you resist such farce?” Hermes says.

      The meddling gods eventually make a wager on whether human intelligence would plague other animals with misery, or if one animal among them could experience a happy death. The victims of the experiment are 15 dogs awaiting their masters at a nearby veterinary clinic, who wake up disarmed by their newfound self-awareness and the heartache that goes along with it: Rosie, a German shepherd, “wondered what had happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It suddenly seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.”

      The complex consciousness within the pack complicates their canine instincts of power and hierarchy with brutish results. With such a large cast of characters, the novel wastes no time dawdling over plot points. The gods can only prove their arguments when each animal is dealt its respective fate, so tragedy strikes early and often, with many of the dogs suffering at the jaws of their own pack.

      As the gods predicted, language makes quite the mess: a mutt named Prince confounds and angers half the pack by sporadically orating poems, spurring Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff, to lead a coup using a creed reminiscent of Animal Farm: “No language but proper dog language, and no ways but dog ways.”

      I won’t spoil the results of the bet, but there’s such a rich, ineffable beauty to each character’s struggle that it’s impossible to remain impartial to their adversity. Yes, it’s a tearjerker. Reason never overshadows sentiment in the novel’s meditations on intellect, and Alexis gives profound weight to each wayward life, no matter how short, perplexing, and unaffirming it may have been.