Heroic Measures

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment (2009). 208 pages, Pantheon.

This is an absolutely wonderful little book. And I mean that as a true and sincere compliment.

Sometimes with books, I get the feeling that an author is trying way too hard to tackle A Big Subject. Other times it feels like the book has been padded by an extra hundred (or sometimes even two or three hundred) pages to make it seem more “weighty”. Heroic Measures is little in both ways: It is a short novel (just 208 pages), and its subject matter could not be more prosaic: This is the story of an elderly couple and their elderly dog. Over one weekend. And the plot? They’re selling their condo.

Yes, that really is the main plot. Ruth and Alex, married for 45 years, are trying to sell their 5th-floor walkup apartment in New York City. Although they bought the place for $5,000 40 years ago, they have a real estate agent who says she can get them one million dollars for their place. And with that kind of money, they can afford to buy an apartment in a building with an elevator.

The novel starts on a Friday. Their agent is planning an open house on Saturday morning, and Alex and Ruth have to get their place ready for potential buyers. But, two terrible things happen: their elderly dachshund, Dorothy, suddenly can’t walk. As the couple frantically try to find a 24-hour emergency vet to treat their beloved dog, news of a possible terrorist attack ripples through the city. A tractor-trailer hauling gasoline has stopped in one of the city’s tunnels, and reports are coming in that there may be a bomb on the truck…

What follows is 48 hours of hectic turmoil in Alex and Ruth’s life. Will Dorothy survive back surgery? Will they be able to sell their condo while the city is in full-fledged panic mode? And what about the offer on their new place, whose owners demand an answer and a down payment by Sunday afternoon?

One of the charming – and poignant – aspects of this book is that periodically, there will be a short chapter from Dorothy’s perspective. Yes, from the point of view of the sickly dog. And these chapters are among the most tense moments in the novel. You’re pulling for Dottie, you want her to survive and get out of the hospital so badly. From her point of view, she’s been abandoned and she’s in pain. She comes up with her own theories as to what is going on, and she is determined to get back to “her people”.

Reading that back, I see I haven’t done this justice – I’m making it sound like it’s a silly story about a heroic dog, when that is not the case at all. Ciment writes Dottie’s point of view the way you’d imagine a dog would actually think, not in some sort of storybook or Disney fashion. It’s extremely gripping, so much so that when the action switches back to Alex and Ruth’s point of view, I wanted to cheat and skip ahead to find out what was going to happen to Dorothy!

I can’t tell you anything about the author, Jill Ciment, other than to tell you she is one hell of a great writer. She has taken a mundane plot and created a terrific, wonderful novel out of it. The characters are real people. The situations are heartfelt and true. And the plot is every bit as gripping as a bestseller from John Grisham or Dan Brown. It sounds crazy, but trust me – it’s true. She has a way with words and storytelling that I have not encountered in quite a while. Take this passage, where Ruth is looking wistfully out of her favorite window:

The rise of the sun is like the opening of a novel she’s read so many times that she can take pleasure in the details and nuances without having to race to the end to find out what happens.

Or this passage. Here, Alex, an acclaimed artist, is working on what he imagines may very well be his last great work: an illuminated manuscript taken from his and Ruth’s FBI files, created when they were peace protesters back in the 1950’s:

It will take in not only the manuscript page he is finishing, but all six hundred and ninety-nine pages still waiting to be illuminated, and his studio filled with a lifetime of work in the terrified city on the panicked island by the nervous continent.

If you love New York City, or any big city, you’ll love this book. If you love dogs, you’ll love this book. If you’ve ever had a tense weekend filled with possible life-changing challenges, you’ll love this book.

Frankly, if you simply like to read, you’ll love this book. Heroic Measures is a truly heroic slice of life, and you should not miss it. This is a book you will read with pleasure, and one you’ll think about with satisfaction long after you’ve finished it.

This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink.