Pick up just about any novel and you'll find the phrase "somewhere a dog barked."

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June 17 2010 9:36 AM

"Somewhere a Dog Barked"

Pick up just about any novel and you'll find a throwaway reference to a dog, barking in the distance.

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When confronted with an uninspiring unseen bark, I like to pretend the dog is Lassie's cousin, bearing a message.

Richard Ford, Independence Day: "From the linden tree shade, Kristy hears something in the afternoon breeze—a dog barking somewhere, my son in our car. She turns and looks toward me, puzzled."
Translation: Watch out, the boy is reprogramming your favorite FM stations!

Tobias Wolff, Old School: "During our worst dreams we are assured by a dog barking somewhere, a refrigerator motor kicking on, that we will soon wake to true life."
Translation: No transcendence until you get the fridge fixed!

T.C. Boyle, Riven Rock: "In two days he'd be back on the train to New Jersey. There was a dog barking somewhere. He could smell beef and gravy on her breath."
Translation: That bitch just ate my liver!

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These howls are empty and cheap—and I'll float the opinion that publishers should collar them. Imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald's editor had let slip, "It was dark now, and as we dipped under a little bridge I put my arm around Jordan's golden shoulder and drew her toward me and asked her to dinner. Somewhere a dog barked. Suddenly I wasn't thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more, but of this clean, hard, limited person. …"

Unless the disembodied barks aren't sloppy mistakes. Unless, in fact, they serve a deeper, more conspiratorial purpose. Martin Amis says, "All writing is a campaign against cliché." Well, what if these dogs aren't just cliché, but something more? What if they're a meme? Perhaps distant dogs are a way for novelists to wink at one another, at their extraordinary luck for being allowed into the publishing club. When an author incorporates a faceless barking dog into his novel, he's like an amateur at Harlem's Apollo Theater rubbing the Tree of Hope—he does it because so many others have done it before him, and it might just bring him some luck. Look at (Pulitzer Prize-winning) To Kill a Mockingbird: "Ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs." Look at (National Book Award winner) Let The Great World Spin: "The street throbbed around me. Nobody's fault but my own. The bark of a dog flew by." Indeed, look at Martin Amis in his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow: "Keith closed his eyes and searched for troubled dreams. The dogs in the valley barked. And the dogs in the village, not to be outdone, barked back."

I saw my friend Nic Brown last week, whose first novel, like mine (You Lost Me There), is being published this summer. (Nic's book, Doubles, is hysterically funny). I asked Nic if he'd joined the grand tradition by including either "A dog barks in the distance" or "Somewhere a dog barks." I explained how, in fact, I'd done so myself—unconsciously, in an early draft—but decided to leave it in, partially to test my theory but mostly because it's contextual to a sex scene involving other canine behavior. Nic looked at me like I was nuts. "Dude, what are you talking about?" He said he doubted it—it sounded awfully cliché. We played tennis, then parted ways. An hour later Nic sent me an e-mail: "You won't believe this. Doubles, Page 108: 'Somewhere a dog barked, and it awakened me to my own physical condition.' But the dog then appears a few lines later, so he does exist." That's all I ask.

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