I admittedly don’t read a whole lot of fiction, partly because my mind is too busy coming up with my own. But a few weeks ago while out with Kona and Vive at Fort MacArthur’s dog cemetery, a dog-walking neighbor and I were discussing a story I’ve been developing for a couple years. Enthralled with where I’m taking the story, he offered the creative and professional recommendation of Watchers, a novel by Dean Koontz. He included a personal disclaimer that he’s not particularly a Koontz fan (an author who some may classify as a sort of poor man’s Stephen King), but Watchers was an exceptional tale far beyond paperback bubble gum pop junk reading.
I picked up a copy of Watchers a few weeks ago loosely knowing that it was a thriller set in Southern California, and it included a dog. Once I cracked into it, I found it to be a nice supplement to my hikes with the dogs through our local open spaces, as the beginning of the story takes place in virtually identical terrain. I strolled through the book at a leisurely pace, reading a dozen pages every couple days or so for a few weeks. The plot began thickening, and yesterday I hit page 339* and BOOM! I needed to finish it. Sprinting for the finish line, I plowed through the next 150 pages last night, finally finishing at 2:20 AM this morning.
Yeah. It was that good.
While the story’s packaged as a thriller, its true strength is its emotional core. Themes abound: the healing power of love and friendship, the struggle to overcome past failures and reinvent ourselves, the moral superiority of the individual over the workings of the state and large institutions, the natural wonder of the potential of the intelligent mind, and how we sustain hope in the face of our awareness that all things inevitably die.
Emotionally unforgettable, with a story that KICKS SERIOUS ASS. (Warning: semi-ambiguous spoilers below.)
Travis, a friendless and soul-searching man with a past riddled with loss, is hiking alone in the Santa Ana mountains on the morning of his thirty-sixth birthday. He meets a stray dog — a golden retriever — with no tags or collar, covered in burrs and stickers, petrified, fleeing something. Taking the dog as his own, he returns to his home in Santa Barbara and gradually notices signs that the dog possesses superintelligence. Spending hours with the dog and devising a “yes and no answer system” (wag your tail for “yes”; bark for “no”), Travis is startled and ecstatic to learn that the dog — who he dubs Einstein — can both understand his questions, and answer them. Yet something is wrong: Einstein is constantly going to the window, fearfully staring out into the night, as if awaiting the arrival of something bad.
The plot thickens when, through the dog, Travis meets Nora, a talented painter and literary-minded woman living in solitude. Thirty years old and on the road to an old maid’s existence, the dog saves her from a potential assailant in the park. She falls in love with Einstein — her hero — and the dog ends up being a cupid of sorts for the relationship that develops between she and Travis. So now, we’ve got a conventional love story, and we’re off and running.
The three become soul mates. Travis and Nora take the “yes and no” question and answer system to another level when they break out hundreds of picture books and magazines, spreading them on the floor in front of the dog. Spending hours together, they develop a more sophisticated form of communication, where Einstein begins communicating to them through picture association. Nora ups the ante again by teaching Einstein the alphabet, and eventually, with practice, they devise an elaborate method of communication with Einstein by way of Scrabble tiles. Once Einstein learns how to spell and read, he begins communicating to them by arranging Scrabble tiles to form words and phrases.
All the while, Einstein has not stopped staring out the window in the night hours, waiting for something. There are some extremely interesting ideas Koontz plays with here, subtly merging the dog’s engineered literacy with his natural sixth sense.
Months go by, and we eventually learn that the dog had escaped from a genetic engineering laboratory in Irvine before crossing paths with Travis in the hills that morning. Einstein is the beaming result of a government project to create an intelligent dog for war. We also learn the frightening truth about what the dog’s been afraid of: he wasn’t the only creature to escape from the lab. While Einstein was the genetic experiment’s success story, there was a darker side of the experiment. A creature known as “the Outsider”; part baboon, part demonic wolf, part human, and at least as intelligent as Einstein. In a parallel story, the Outsider has been storming across Southern California, from Orange County northward, killing people and animals in its path, tracking down Einstein. Like an unloved child resentful of the favored sibling, the Outsider has an insatiable urge to — with his own sixth sense — track down Einstein and kill him.
Things begin to heat up. With their knowledge of the Outsider’s intentions, combined with the fear that the government with its commissioned bounty hunters will stop at nothing to capture the escaped retriever, Travis, Einstein, and Nora head north in flight. The story takes us to San Francisco, then back down to Salinas, with a showdown occurring in the remote forests of Big Sur. The story really hit close to me, TO THE BLOCK, with the climax’s set-up taking place in the sleepy dog-friendly town of Carmel on Delores Street. The familiar (and perfect) setting made it an especially entertaining read on a personal level.
One of the elements of the story that hit me like a two-by-four to the chest was when Koontz reveals the meaning of the title. Watchers. In a single word, he summed up exactly what I was attempting to put into words with this essay one night. A night when I had one of those moments of heightened awareness with regards to the driving dynamic in the man/dog relationship. In this essay, and in Koontz’s chosen title, there’s a reality about a dog’s gift to us that goes beyond unconditional love. Our dogs are in effect giving us the privilege of their dependence on us; they are filling our need to be needed. It’s an integral part of that unconditional love that’s become so legendary. While our dogs watch us, they are in fact granting us the honor of watching them. We are all watchers, watching each other. It’s mutual. It goes both ways. Such is love.
I think they may have done an embarrassingly-horrific film version of Watchers in the eighties that the world would be better off forgetting. But the material is so good that I’m confident it’d make an outstanding film today, starring somebody like Mark Wahlberg or Joaquin Phoenix.
Oh, and I’m not gonna give away the ending, but it KNOCKED ME OUT OF BED. At 2:20 AM. Out of this world stuff.
“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”
–Pierre Teilhard d Chardin
*OMG TEAR-JERK ALERT: Einstein, explaining to Travis and Nora why he would never leave them, arranged the Scrabble tiles to read:
I WOULD DIE OF LONELY.