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June 1999
 
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Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley

I'm a sucker for talking-animal stories. But seldom have I encountered so gracefully seductive an Aesopian parable as Christopher Morley's Where the Blue Begins (1922). The adventures of a humanly intelligent dog named Gissing, a nonconformist in a completely canine world, this book combines the pastoral charms of The Wind in the Willows (1908), the urbanity of James Branch Cabell, the wackiness of Thorne Smith, and the mysticism of a whole pot of Inklings.

If he's remembered at all today, Christopher Morley (1890-1957) is probably recalled for his literary essays or his best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). But in a time when genre borders were less formidable, Morley felt free to jump from one mode to another, and this novel is just one of his fantasies.

The clothed and pipe-smoking, bipedal Gissing is a well-off dog with a country home, who manages to suppress his many doubts and desires. But then three orphaned puppies land on his doorstep. These foundlings ignite in Gissing a horde of existential qualms all symbolized by "the miracle of blue unblemished sky." Eventually, entrusting the puppies to Mrs. Spaniel, Gissing sets out for Manhattan, determined to unriddle the core mysteries of life. Instead, he bumbles blithely from one contretemps to another, trying his paw as store manager, minister, and ship's captain. The book's ending delivers a heart-rending moment when Gissing comes face to face with his long-sought God, and then is dumped back onto the quotidian plane of existence, yet ennobled.

Morley's dialogue and characterizations are absolutely brilliant, his touch light and assured. This quintessentially Jazz Age novel simultaneously encapsulates and transcends its era.

—Paul Di Filippo

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