Ask Bob (Henry Holt) will be a bit of a surprise (and maybe a slight disappointment) to Peter Gethers fans who know his captivating nonfiction trilogy romps around the globe with his late, beloved cat Norton (who lived with the author in Sag Harbor). A screenwriter, playwright, book publisher, film and TV producer (and co-creator of the off-Broadway hit Old Jews Telling Jokes), Gethers has now turned his attention to the novel. Bob Heller works devotedly in The West Village, giving care and comfort to all manner of pets—“cats, dogs, horses, birds, snakes, turtles, frogs, fish, snails [!], small pigs, and many varieties of rodents.” He also writes a weekly column, “Ask Dr. Bob,” called “The Vetting Zoo,” where he dispenses advice in the form of Q&As. Intelligent, kind, sensitive, full of gentle humor and common sense, he’s almost too good to be true, and there’s the rub: the “almost” is almost too much. When he gets married, his father tells him that “having a child’s not like having a dog.” It takes a while for Bob to appreciate the larger fact: that loving another person is not like loving a dog. Still, Bob’s heart is always in the right place, even if his behavior sometimes goes astray.
Ask Bob is full of good sentiment. As Bob puts it in his farewell column, after 15 years (it’s the last line of the book), “Savoring happiness is something our pets learn how to do very early on, so I’m not sure why it’s such a hard concept for us humans to grasp. But it’s worth grasping.” Earlier, he observes, “With animals, you feed them, house them, pet them, and when needed, you take away their pain—and for that they trust and love you. It should be that simple with humans, but of course it isn’t. We try to make it that simple, but it never is.” But, of course, such a generous soul is going to succeed, get the girl and expand the business. The acerbic Dr. Marjorie Paws, whose practice he inherits (a third of her customers are lesbian cat owners), sees at once his straight-arrow, compassionate ways and brings him onboard. In other words, the conflicts that should drive the narrative don’t seem persuasive enough. Despite owning up to his foibles and despite heartbreak and aggravation, Bob is never less than fully attentive to his animal kingdom. He’s a mensch from the start, so there’s little in the way of character development.
The plot is a series of chance occurrences, but the timing of critical events and pivotal moments, romantic and familial, seems arbitrary. People show up, people disappear and reappear. The Q&As don’t advance the plot or seem integral to what goes on in the chapters they head. Nor do the occasional stories of clients and their pets, as heartwarming and informative as they are, relate to the narrative at the point of their inclusion. Some sections, especially about Bob’s family, go on some, his angry father, his passive mother (who comes into her own after her husband dies) and Bob’s manipulative older brother, Ted. The extensive space given over to his dysfunctional family and to the even more dysfunctional families of the two women he loves, is meant to explain Bob’s fear of emotional commitment, but the reader never doubts that Bob will do the right thing. He may be flawed—he says so himself—and he feels unworthy of the women he loves but they’re lucky to have him. Who else would put up for so long with the likes of Ted, a handsome, ego-maniacal, slick-talking narcissist with an unending capacity for cruelty (why so much attention to him?). How could anyone not root, with confidence, for a man who’s opened his home to his personal menagerie? And how could any pet lover not be charmed and guided by the Q&As?
Peter Gethers will be signing books at BookHampton in East Hampton on August 8 at 7 p.m. and at BookHampton in Mattituck Thurs. August 15 at 7 p.m.