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Top Dog
Jerry Jay Carroll
Ace Books, 336 pages

Top Dog
Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll writes the daily "Lively Arts" column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives with his wife in San Rafael. His other novels include Dog Eat Dog and the not-quite-classifiable Inhuman Beings.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Top Dog
SF Site Review: Inhuman Beings
SF Site Review: Dog Eat Dog

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

This is a book that shouldn't be any good. To begin with, there's nothing new here -- a gateway between multiple worlds opens in which our hero encounters wizards and talking beasts in a magical battle of Good versus Evil where Good is down for the count and Evil on the verge of final victory, only to be thwarted by the cunning of aforesaid resourceful, if reluctant, hero. Ho hum. Then there's the conceit of having a human finding himself transformed into a big dog, who tags around with a befuddled human who learns that when the dog barks, it's best to listen. Sounds a little like a plot for one of those 60s Walt Disney movies starring Fred McMurray.

So why am I urging you read this book? Because it's a funny, entertaining jaunt that even manages to raise the Big Metaphysical Questions of the Meaning of Life and why Evil exists without falling into banalities, although at times it teeters on the brink. Not that you're going to get any satisfying answers, except in a kind of sappy sitcom kind of way (another reason I might have expected not to like this book). The author's theological ponderings are hardly on par with those of, say, James Morrow.

All that notwithstanding, it made me laugh. It made me want to keep turning the pages to find out what happened next, even if I already sort of knew what to expect. It made me put Jerry Jay Carroll on my "Authors to Read" list.

You're probably not supposed to like the narrator, William Bogart Ingersol, at first. Although it's hard not to. Especially since we first meet him as a lost dog, having flashbacks of another life on two legs, but still with the cynical attitude echoed by his middle namesake. To take just one example, here's Bogie's description of a close encounter experienced with new-found companion Quick, a fox (and, yes, the animals talk to one another, what should have been yet another black mark against the book), who isn't anymore (quick, that is):

    "Just as we made it to the end of a bridge, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye, something trying to head us off. We stopped a safe distance off and looked back. On either side of the bridge were two of the ugliest things I'd ever seen. They were wet-looking and kind of purplish with warty lumps all over. Greasy, lank hair hung down over their faces. They motioned with thick arms. They has squashed-in mugs with yellow fangs and red eyes. Jesus, what a sight.
    'Trolls,' Quick said shivering. 'They nearly got us.'
    ...Trolls. I was in a goddamned fairy tale."
Why has Bogie ended up in fairyland, anyway? Seems it was a mistake. The evil wizard Zalzathar had actually been trying to cast a spell to summon Bernard Soderberg, a Robert Maxwell figure whose ruthlessness even offends Bogie. But, at the last second, the good wizard Helither deflects the spell so that Zalzathar winds up with Bogie, instead. As Bogie relates the situation:
    "'You're not what I wanted at all,' Zalzathar said spitefully.
    I didn't say anything. I should apologize. Who's the victim here?"
The Forces of Darkness were depending on Soderberg's utterly depraved deviousness in exploiting human weaknesses to provide the final stroke to crush Goodness; seems the problem with Evil is a narrow-mindedness that always succumbs to a last minute unanticipated move that manages to save the day for the good guys. While Bogie is a corporate raider of dubious ethics (he's just been convicted for defrauding a children's charity when he wakes up in canine form), he's not in Soderberg's class of cretin.

Which makes Zalzathar's master, Mogwert (aka, the Devil), unsure of whether Bogie is up to the task. So our hero must prove his worth as an evildoer. Helither, meanwhile, wants Bogie to gain Zalzathar's confidence in order to mislead the Forces of Evil into a strategic blunder that Good can take advantage of to win the Final Battle. For his service, both sides promise to return Bogie back to his rightful world and human form. But can they, or will they? Bogie doesn't much care for Evil, but seems willing to deal if it's in his best interests.

And why a dog? That's never explained, but the metaphor is apt. Dogs can be the most loyal of creatures. They can also be vicious pack animals. Bogie's chances to return to being human depend upon, paradoxically, what kind of dog he becomes. Of course, his middle name is an obvious clue that our protagonist is the classical anti-hero who says he only looks out for himself, but eventually walks out into the fog to fight the good fight.

In the end, this dog's bark proves better than his bite, and for those who may become rabid fans of this book, you'll be pleased to know there's now a sequel, Dog Eat Dog, you can get your own paws on.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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