I’m not entirely sure what made me think of it, but this past week some strange, random thought was bugging me that led me to revisit a book I hadn’t thought about in ages, but that I distinctly remember enjoying very much at the time I first discovered it. Turns out it’s still pretty good.
I know, I know. Get over your horror and shock. I can explain.
No More Dead Dogs comes from the mind of prolific children and teen author Gordon Korman, who has written dozens of short novellas of varying degrees of quality, but I daresay that this book is probably one of his best. This is partially because, while it may take place within and be ostensibly aimed at the middle school/high school demographic, its appeal actually encompasses pretty much any age group who can appreciate the sometimes dark, always dry, and frequently side-splitting humor present here. It’s a story within a story (and maybe even within another layer of story, too) about a school play, very much in the vein of Waiting for Guffman or Hamlet 2, and often just as masterfully funny.
The main character of the book, Wallace Wallace (yes, he has the same first and last name), instantly won me over from the second he appears on the page. Here’s an eighth-grade kid after my own heart: a guy who basically walks through life not caring what anyone else thinks of him and committed to always doing the right thing, but with a chip on his shoulder the size of the continental United States. This primarily takes the form of his complete and total refusal to ever tell a lie, to anyone, for any reason. His sense of honesty is blunt, forthright, and takes no prisoners, usually resulting in hilarious one-liners that you can almost hear his totally deadpan delivery of floating off the page. Wallace tells the truth, no matter who he ticks off by doing it. So naturally when he’s assigned to read the fictional book “Old Shep, My Pal” (ostensibly about a dog who gets run over by a motorcycle, nursed back to health by some kids, and eventually dies), he writes a final report giving his honest opinion that the book is complete garbage. This of course deeply offends his English teacher, Mr. Fogleman, who loves the book and considers it a classic, and proceeds to bench Wallace from his place on the football team and put him in detention until he writes a “real” report. While in detention, Wallace, to his horror, is forced to watch the theater kids at his school rehearse their next play, a stage version of the hated “Old Shep, My Pal”–and in his view, even more atrocious than the original. But, he decides, why sit there and waste time watching a lousy show when he can do something about it?
This basic idea forms the backbone of the entire plot, which involves Wallace slowly and unwittingly winning the respect and trust of the drama kids and stealing creative control of the play from Fogleman, and all the while still refusing to cease his strongly-worded criticism of the book. The central conceit of the story is about a dog that dies, which sets up the question as Wallace asks it: can you name a story featuring prominent dogs where the dog doesn’t die at the end? Neither can I. Wallace sees this, as probably many readers do, as absurd and unnecessary, and makes it his personal mission to get Old Shep to live through the story (so you animal lovers out there can relax now, I promise). This gradually ropes in a diverse supporting cast of oddball characters, from the school’s irresponsible, rumor-mongering reporter to a misfit rock band and two stuntmen on mopeds and roller skates, gradually transforming the play from an old-timey snorefest into a modern rock opera.
This premise is funny enough in many ways, but what really sells this book to me are the characters involved. I tend to really like ensemble-cast comedies, from MASH to Arrested Development and even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and No More Dead Dogs kind of follows that mold. The best moments are always when one or more totally different characters are playing off each other in unexpected ways, and more often than not realizing that they’re not so different after all. It comes off like the classic misfits-unite-type story, with the added wrinkle of someone trying to sabotage their play. I won’t tell you whodunnit–that’s one of the central conflicts of the story–and it’s one that honestly surprised me even the second time I read it. There’s so many different possibilities that the end result will probably catch you off guard. Plus it’s a quick read, so you won’t have to spend too much time getting there.
The book is very funny, too. There’s one-liners and humorous situations aplenty, and a lot of them actually might go over the heads of younger readers and be more appreciated by adults. Korman masterfully constructs the back-and-forth exchanges between students, and almost all the characters show off a lot of range and depth. There’s four narrators of the story in all, and three of them come off great: Wallace, Mr. Fogleman (who eventually learns to stop worrying and just enjoy the ride), and Rachel (the lead actress of the play and head of the drama club who has a personal and creative rivalry with Wallace). The last is Trudi (another theater girl who is hopelessly in love with Wallace); honestly, I’m not really sure what is accomplished by getting inside her head, both from a character perspective and a story perspective. Beyond the love-struck ditzy-ness that defines her, there’s not as much depth to Trudi as there is to the other characters, and she’s not really that funny either. Frankly, I think she could have been removed from the book entirely and nobody would have missed her.
Another slight misstep comes in the form of Steve Cavanaugh, Wallace’s football teammate and former best friend-turned-worst enemy. While Wallace and Steve’s rivalry and hatred is earned and authentic enough (Steve resents Wallace’s popularity even though he’s clearly the better athlete of the two), the book never makes it entirely clear what split them up in the first place, which would have informed their current relationship a lot more (though there are some hints at it). The side story also never really comes to a satisfying conclusion, because at the end of the book I’m unclear as to what Wallace and Steve’s new baseline relationship is supposed to be (I mean, I think they more or less made up but I’m not sure?). More could definitely have been made of it to try and sort things out for the audience.
As I said before, though, the book really shines in terms of characters, and Wallace leads the pack. He’s probably one of the most engaging and likable leading men in fiction as I’ve consumed it, not only because he’s honestly funny but because it’s so obvious that he has a good heart and is a genuinely kind person, and is even quite self-effacing at times. He makes no bones about the fact that he isn’t perfect and is confused as to why so many people like him and idolize him when he doesn’t consider himself special at all. He’s a hero in every sense of the word, and even though total and complete honesty might not always be the best policy for people in the real world, it certainly seems to work out well for Wallace in the end. His dry wit, deadpan honesty, and well-honed sense of sarcasm steals the show and really creates someone you want to root for both on and off the fictional field.
My Rating: 4/5
While it’s not quite perfect, No More Dead Dogs is a riot for anyone with even a mildly sensitive funny bone, and is perfect for people who love the meta-humor of stories about other people telling stories. I’m actually kind of shocked that no one has picked this up for film or TV or even stage yet (where was the Disney Channel original movie crew on this one, huh?), because it would make a superb adaptation. Hmm. Maybe I’ve found my next writing project.