Books

Joseph O’Neill
The Dog

Joseph O’Neill has a habit of setting his novels around large American crises. His critically lauded Netherland was set in the aftermath of 9/11 and The Dog takes place in the wake of the global financial crisis, delivering a potent examination of a man attempting to behave ethically in a world corrupted by the desire for excessive wealth.

As The Dog opens, the narrator, known only as X., is scuba-diving off the coast of Dubai, having apparently fled both a long-term relationship and his career as a New York lawyer. He works for the Batros family, in a job arranged for him by his college friend Eddie Batros. Though X.’s function is ostensibly “to make sure nobody steals” from the family’s stupendous wealth, he becomes their minion, required to undertake any menial task.

Dubai is an apt location, with its stratified social structure and immigrant workers. X.’s assistant is a “Bidoon”, a class of stateless Arabs who can neither lawfully work nor leave the country. “They are, as things stand, fucked,” observes X. At one point, he attempts to locate the cleaners of his hotel room in an effort to tip them, but they scatter whenever he approaches. Everywhere, human beings abnegate their responsibility towards others; at all levels, the rich exploit the poorer. But while X. indulges his various proclivities, he behaves honourably towards everyone he encounters. In that respect, he is unusual.

On “planet Batrosia”, X. is required to sign off on transactions he barely comprehends, and his position is, at best, precarious. His backstory reveals he didn’t shun commitment, but chose to leave a loveless relationship, rather than acquiesce to parenthood.

The years O’Neill worked as a lawyer are apparent from the novel’s dense language and legal in-jokes, which might make for tedium if it weren’t for the compelling narrative voice. We’re being asked to consider at whose expense we live our elaborate lifestyles, the preposterousness of which is a constant source of amusement. In a fit of rage, all X. can find to throw is a jar of Umbrian lentils, which creates “an unusual brown explosion as the jar burst”. 

A moral person, O’Neill suggests, is prepared to face the consequences of his actions. When his employers finally turn on him, The Dog ends with X. sitting in his luxury massage chair, prepared to do exactly that.  HT

HarperCollins, 304pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Joseph O’Neill, The Dog". Subscribe here.