Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Ignatius Press.
It’s hard to believe that Tobit’s Dog is Michael Richard’s first novel, considering how engaging it is. The story slips easily from character to character, starting with the titular dog Okra and ending with Tobit’s son Tobias. Each one has a distinct point of view, but the connections between them are tightly-woven.
The story mirrors the Book of Tobit, part of the Old Testament still read by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, about a faithful man’s descent into complete vulnerability and his son’s journey to collect an old debt. Instead of an ancient landscape, Richard’s characters live in the American South during the Great Depression.
When the novel begins, Tobit Freeman Messager (accompanied by the dog) is scavenging in a garbage dump and dealing with the unwarranted scrutiny of the white sheriff; his main concern is to secure the material stability of his wife Anna and his son Tobias. His life takes a turn for the worse when he transports the body of a murdered child to the police. He’s arrested, his mule and cart are confiscated, and a freak event blinds him. It seems nothing short of a miracle will save the family’s home.
One of Michael Richard’s strengths is his narrative style. It struck me within a few pages that Tobit’s Dog is a book to be read aloud. Alliteration, parallelism, and other literary devices abound. Nouns repeat instead of changing to pronouns, the repetition creating its own resonance.
The overall affect is of a storyteller recounting his tale over a cup of coffee. Here’s a gorgeous example of the way Richard captures the essence of Tobit’s plight:
“All he had was four acres, including the swampy land, a cow, and the mule. Even making the taxes was growing difficult. The assessors were harder on Negroes than they were on white folk, and the Lord help you if a white man with powerful friends had set his sight on your property.”
Another strength is how Richard suspends disbelief with sensory details and character interaction. Supernatural elements might seem unbelievable in a contemporary setting. However, the environment in Tobit’s Dog is so firmly anchored in reality that an angel has as much weight and dimension as an auto mechanic.
For me, part of the fun was seeing how the novel stayed true to its source but tweaked details. The Messager family history and its traditions set Tobit apart from his community, just as in the Book of Tobit the man’s charitable burial of an Israelite draws the attention (and disapproval) of his neighbours. The angel is a charming cousin who comes to Tobit’s door with a guitar and youthful enthusiasm. The monstrous fish of the Biblical account is still a whopper.
I especially admired the depiction of the cursed young woman Sarah. In the Book of Tobit, fiancé after fiancé are struck down by the demon Asmodeus. But in Tobit’s Dog the explanation will be more earthly, right? Yes… and no. There’s still a demon in the mix, acknowledged in the briefest of scenes.
I liked how Richard handled it, but I wonder if readers unfamiliar with the Book of Tobit will feel cheated. The scene feels like a set-up to a face-off, but the confrontation itself is completely missing.
In my opinion, the great weakness of Tobit’s Dog is that the cousin never reveals himself as an angel to the Messager family but doesn’t play so coy with others. The Big Reveal at the end of the book occurs with a secondary character in a European art museum. It felt false, particularly since Tobit’s son tends his family’s grave in the same setting as the rest of the novel.