By PEGGY MOEN
Tobit’s Dog by Michael Nicholas Richard. Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2014); $19.95; 185 pages. Order at www.ignatius.com, or by calling 1-800-651-1531.
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“What about the dog?” my pastor once asked in a homily about the Book of Tobit.
The dog is mentioned a couple of times in Tobit, but without much elaboration. See Tobit 6:1: “The boy left with the angel, and the dog followed behind”; and 11:4: “They went on together…and the dog followed them.”
In Tobit’s Dog, novelist Michael Nicholas Richard sets his story the 1930s South and gives a wider role to the dog, Okra, describing his eyes in a way that tie him to his owner, Tobit, and to the Archangel Raphael, appearing in the novel in the guise of Ace Redbone, a musician and distant relative.
Redbone comes to cure Tobit of his blindness and to be a matchmaker for Tobit’s son Tobias and Sarah, who has suffered the deaths of three fiancés. This parallels Raphael as Azarias in the biblical account, but retold in a modern setting with some decidedly modern themes, such as a murder with racial and homosexual elements. Tobit’s family in the novel is black and Catholic. Tobit helps tend the body of the murdered teenager, much as the biblical Tobit buried his countrymen who were thrown over the walls of Nineveh.
Richard’s rendition is spellbinding and amazingly imaginative. The supernatural element is more subtle than in the Bible story, but it permeates the novel all the same.
In the Book of Tobit, for example, a demon kills Sarah’s seven fiancés. In the novel, the murderer is human, but in league with the powers of darkness. Ace Redbone confronts the murderer:
“Mammon and Asmodai I have bound and cast out. Does it say that in Scripture? Maybe not, but it should. Greed and Lust have fallen before the wrath of God.”
The dog Okra assists in the killer’s demise.
Similarly, in the Book of Tobit, the Archangel Raphael rises into the sky and disappears from view. In Tobit’s Dog, three couples and Okra follow Ace Redbone down the drive to the road.
“Then he waved and began walking. They watched him until he disappeared around the curve of the road. Okra did not whine or fret; he seemed to accept the properness of it all and trotted happily back to the house so he could continue with worrying at the ham bone.”
But in the epilogue, Raphael appears once more, this time to a protagonist who is visiting the National Gallery in post-World War II London. Frank Forgeron struggled with faith, but all the same had aided Tobit and Tobias, employing the young Tobias in his car repair shop.
At this point, Forgeron is old and seriously ill. In the gallery, he pauses before a painting called Tobias and the Angel.
“Frank snorted. ‘That don’t look a bit like Tobias, or Okra’.”
A nearby guard engages him in conversation, and refers to Catfish Creek, where Tobias once caught a record-size catfish, so Frank realizes the guard is the same as Ace Redbone. The archangel then assists Frank in his passing from this life.
A decidedly Catholic spiritual touch in Tobit’s Dog is the angel’s use of Lourdes water in restoring sight to Tobit.
I especially liked Richard’s interpretation of the anguished prayers of Tobit and Sarah, who cry out to God that death seems preferable to life, Tobit because of his blindness and Sarah because of the death of her fiancés.
Dog lovers, devotees of the Archangel Raphael, and fans of murder mysteries will all love this book.