On Dogs, Man, and the Navy
When an unmarried man retires, divorces himself from the Navy, and takes off his uniform for the last time, he often loses something quiet. It is subtle, this change, and those first years out of khaki, dress-blues can be troubling. Mark Butterworth's book, A Man with Three Great German Shepherds (and 1,000 Troy Ounces of Gold) writes of one such Sailor, Chief Warrant Officer Dan Martin. Men of his rank come in two seasonings: salty and saltier. And Dan excretes handfuls of both.
The Warrant is old-fashioned; he believes in propriety and respect. Precisely when such admirable traits turned fuddy-duddy perplexes him. Throughout the novel, while society's moral fiber creaks and strains around him, Dan longs for simpler times, before punks and skateboarding and Pit Bulls.
As a naval officer, I know many of this old breed, hardworking and loyal. Team players, but not glory hounds. When Dan finally hangs it up, he faces the divorce mentioned above. It is an honor to wear the uniform and to savor the dignity it confers. But without it, he feels lost, adrift. He ultimately fills the void two ways: with dogs and with gold. Three beautiful German Shepherds, each with a personality of their own. Plus gold, carefully purchased one sweaty coin at a time.
Although Dan appears the protagonist of A Man with Three Great German Shepherds, his pooches deserve top billing. Lucy, Zoe, and Ella carry the novel on their furry backs, each as distinct as their varied coloring.
The feds enjoy the first entry on Dan's bad-dog list. They hector him, about his own activities and about the actions of his friend, Bill. Initially, the Warrant's children appear ambivalent with his presence, almost antagonistic. But both warm to a relationship long fractured by negative familial patterns and Navy deployments. Of them, his daughter especially purrs with Dan's overdue affection.
As for writing style, I worried that Dan was actually Mark Butterworth and that he lived this challenging life. I even e-mailed him, lightly querying whether it was autobiographical. Choppy waves shadow the Warrant, and Mr. Butterworth's style is so easily read that I thought he modeled his main character after himself. It is a compliment, I think, for an author to be asked this question. Mark assured me that besides the dogs and a fact here, there, his book was fiction. Dan's life is indeed tragic, and ultimately redeemed by his noble, well-trained pets. The dogs weave magic into the pages, casting spells, morphing tragedy to comedy.
Would I recommend this novel? Without doubt. It is enjoyable at a very basic level. It made my heart yearn for a puppy. With a sea tour on my horizon, a canine is a non-starter. Hence, this book filled my own void.
The plot is deliberate, small-towny, but when action arrives, it burst forth like a squirrel down a tree. And we, the readers, are pulled across the lawn after it. Once the squirrel scampers to sights unseen, our dog, the book, obediently heels at our side. It is nice, surprising. Do not expect Hound of the Baskervilles intrigue. It is a straightforward novel, shining with simplicity.
As I write this, I am sitting in the middle of nowhere, doing the Navy's work. We are in the preliminary stages of testing a new capability and a lull in the 15-hour procedure donates time to finish my review. My boss, a Commander, looms before me.
"Lieutenant, what are you doing?"
"Sir, I am writing a review for a book about a retired Warrant Officer."
"Who's the Warrant?" the Commander asks, picking up the novel.
"A guy by the name of Dan Martin."
"Dan Martin," my boss says, reading the back cover. "I know him."
I am silent, and then I cannot not say anything. "Um, sir? It is fiction."
The Commander turns to me with a smile. "I know. And I also know Dan Martin."
I nod. "Got it," I reply.
Do yourself a favor and buy this book. And if you don't have a dog, be prepared to fend off thoughts of adopting one. I just may have to reread A Man with Three Great German Shepherds to quell my jonesing. Oddly, the novel was both the cause and the cure...
Navy One is a prior-enlisted linguist, current naval officer. He blogs at www.themellowjihadi.com when not doing the Navy's bidding.