Book review: “Carry the Dog” by Stephanie Gangi Previous item Book review: “Of Mice and... Next item Book review: “The Art of...

Book review: “Carry the Dog” by Stephanie Gangi

Stephanie Gangi’s Carry the Dog is an overwrought potboiler of the old school, packed to the brim with modern-day hot-button issues.

It’s a lot like the 1966 Jacqueline Susann novel The Valley of the Dolls which Bea Segar, the central character and narrator of Gangi’s book, reads during the summer when she’s eleven and begins menstruating.

This is also the summer when her mother Miri Marx captures a famous photo of Bea and her twin brothers, Ansel and Henry, three years older, all of them nude inside a steamed-up station wagon, Car 1967, a traumatic event for the daughter at least.  Although the photo is mentioned at several points in the novel, the full details are revealed near the end.

Much of Carry the Dog — the title refers to another famous Miri Marx photo — has to do with trauma, unearthed or discovered or recognized by Bea, a 59-year-old Manhattanite who is not very comfortable with herself.

Celebrities

The Valley of the Dolls had a lot of trauma, too.  It was also about celebrities, and so is Carry the Dog.

Bea herself is a minor celebrity in a way that she has sought to avoid through her life.  She and her brothers, as children, were the subjects of a series of photographs infamously and scandalously known as the Marx Nudes.  This series, the Car 1967 photo in particular, led to a pornography investigation by the Attorney General of New York State and to the three children being sent away from Miri for a time.

The case gave Miri, the younger sister of the famous painter Stanley Marx, notoriety across the nation until, in 1969, she committed suicide, four months after her teenage son Ansel died in a fire.  Ever since, her memory and work has been revered by a certain circle of art photography nerds. 

Indeed, Bea is being badgered, on the one hand, by the Museum of Modern Art and, on the other hand, by a Hollywood producer to give a green light to a major project about her mother — a major exhibit at the museum, a flashy bio-pic by the producer. Each not only wants Bea’s permission to go ahead but also access to a storage locker where all of Miri’s work and archives have been held for half a century.  It is the locker and the material inside, piece by piece, that reveals to Bea and the reader the wide extent of trauma that she and her dysfunctional family suffered and continues to suffer.

After Miri’s suicide, Henry went off to college and then to a life apart under another name. But, Bea, while dodging the Marx connections, gained another celebrity by marrying, at the age of 17, Gary Going, a rock star and guitar hero of the band Chalk Outline — and, after their divorce, marrying him again years later.  She wrote what was probably his biggest hit “I, Alive” — but was never given credit. 

Controversy and sensation

The question of whether the Marx Nudes are art or pornography runs through Gorgi’s novel.  But, as required in a potboiler, there are many other controversial issues, sensational activities and shocking events as well.

For instance, Bea and Gary are aging Baby Boomers. He is touring again until he’s knocked for a loop by his body.  She’s dealing with the threat of breast cancer and gingerly keeping in touch with her 91-year-old father Albert by phone.  Hannah, Albert’s 22-year-old daughter from a late-in-life marriage, has come to New York to stay with Bea — her half sister more than twice her age — and pursue a music career under the name of Echo.  They grow close, but then — wham! — Bea is devastated when the younger woman betrays her. Or so it seems.

Carry the Dog features one scene of senior citizen sex, and a full array of non-traditional sexual identities: one lesbian couple, two male same-sex marriages and two bisexual people.  There are references to more than one incident of incest as well as to a powerful man preying on the teenage twins. 

And, also, something that was murder or something close to murder.

Victimized

This is a lot of story for any character to carry, and, in fact, until the very, very end of the novel, it is a story that happens to Bea.

It is a story that shows how, seemingly at every turn in her life, Bea has been victimized — victimized by her mother, victimized by her father, by her brothers, victimized by her rock star husband and, now, victimized by age.  And, it must be said, victimized by her own unfocused approach to her life.

Book clubs who read Carry the Dog are likely to discuss the extent to which all of the traumas that Bea faced are responsible for her floating along with the current, her aimlessness. Her victimhood, in any case, did make it hard for me to spend a lot of time with her.

She talks about “my adulthood, such as it is.”  She complains about “premature invisibility.” She despairs about “the many failed selves I’ve been.” Someone says she was a groupie when she hooked up with Gary, and she’s never thought of that before.  She explains, “I dress in layers head to toe, I like winter clothes best, I cover up as much as I can.”  At a really bad moment, she tells the reader, “I am miserable and ready to wallow, happy to wallow.” A few pages later, she describes herself as “an indecisive wallower.”

For me, Gorgi’s novel had too much sensational stuff packed into 276 pages — enough trauma, sexual and otherwise, for several books — and a central character who, throughout Carry the Dog, was frustratingly vague and insecure.  But, then, what do I know?  The Valley of the Dolls sold more than 31 million copies and was one of the 20 bestselling books of the 20th century.

Maybe Gorgi and her publisher are a lot smarter than I am.

Patrick T. Reardon

11.30.21

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