Any breeder can tell you about a dog’s bloodline, but the canine narrator of Andrew O’Hagan’s fourth novel has a pedigree of a very different kind. Mafia Honey, a scruffy little Maltese, has the kind of social circle that would put today’s celebrities to shame: not only did Frank Sinatra present him as a gift to Marilyn Monroe in 1960, but he also wears a collar inherited from Virginia Woolf’s old pet. He hobnobs with everyone from literary critic Cyril Connolly to President John F. Kennedy. Once, as a puppy, Maf even got hit in the face with a croquet ball launched by Evelyn Waugh.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is similarly refined, balancing high-mindedness with an agreeably ramshackle story. Maf contributes hardly anything in the way of action. Instead, he Forrest Gumps his way through the early ’60s, soaking up culture and politics from underneath whatever table Monroe, his “fated companion”, happens to be sitting at.
What Maf does offer is a unique insight into the chattering class of animals—from cats that speak in verse to Nabokov-channelling butterflies and grumpy bedbugs. Every one of them is almost ridiculously sophisticated. Maf himself is partial to Leon Trotsky; his narration is full of light quips and thoughtful asides. “A dog is bound to like footnotes,” he says, in the middle of one of them. “We spend our lives down here.”
As for the world of high-flying Hollywood royalty surrounding him, Maf’s outsider perspective casts this, too, in an unfamiliar light. The clash that recurs again and again is between the performer and his routine—or, put another way, the corrosive effect that celebrity has on the person enduring it. This is what turns Sinatra paranoid and increasingly violent. This is also what makes Maf’s fated companion succumb to drugs and depression; the novel closes a few months before her death in August 1962.
The London, England–based O’Hagan captures this moment in the American consciousness with exquisite poise, and in the process manages to breathe tremendous amounts of fresh air into these cultural icons. His Monroe is a bright, fundamentally insecure woman who’s struggling to live up to her runaway public image and remain a decent person at heart. Maf spends much of the book trying to assure her that she’s on the right track—but all she hears is yapping.
McClelland & Stewart, 279 pp, $29.99, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 14, 2010)