For weeks now, I’ve been carrying Walking With Zeke, by Chris Clarke, around with me. I’ve squeezed this book into my purse and taken it across the country by plane, its pages rifled through by security at LAX. It has endured my tears, my fingers pinching and dog-earing its pages in wonder, my constant, hungry scribbling in the margins. It has glared up at me from a desk in a hotel, daring me to finish it when I didn’t think I could endure its emotional punch. You should see this thing. When I bought it, it was crisp and white and beautiful. Now it looks like it has been tread upon by a monster truck. Twice.
Even now that I have read and digested this book, I find that I’m not quite finished with it. I find that it has digested a little of me in the process, scraped me down. It has left me without the words to tell you why you should read it, simply that you should, and must.
Please understand: this is not a book review. In a review, one is expected to be unbiased. To disclose a work’s shortcomings along with its highlights. So, okay. If you hate humans or relationships or animals or plant life, you should not read this book. If you hate feeling something in such a way that you can’t forget it, read another book instead. There, that fulfills that requirement.
Walking With Zeke is a story about a man who loved a dog, and the dog who loved him back. It is about love, but, as Clarke warns us, it is not hagiography. It is not sentimental. This is not the bland love of a movie dog that has eaten Jennifer Aniston’s necklace. If that’s what you’re looking for, shop someplace else. This is the fierce and abiding love of a dog that has used a rubber duck as a digestive aid, and the kind of man who could not bear to throw away the duck. It’s quit your job to be there, love. It’s love at the end of life, love. Face against the floor, love. “The problem with dogs,” Clarke writes, “is that they live long enough that one day you can no longer remember your life without them.” You know from a line so powerful and true exactly what kind of writer you’re dealing with.
Ultimately, Walking With Zeke is more about Chris Clarke than it is about his dog, Zeke. A man who can tell you everything about miner’s lettuce and cholla, who can walk you through the lifespan of a tree, Clarke comes off as the wise and fascinating friend everyone wishes they had. A guy who “listens to ravens and raves at the listless,” who prays to the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He’s a less prickly Ed Abbey, a tougher Rick Bass, a Barry Lopez with humor. The kind of writer who observes, without a hint of pretension, that “a long life is a landscape of holes where things once grew.”
But at the heart of Clarke is Zeke. Zeke is an actual character in this story. Adventurous and occasionally misunderstood (no, he’s not part wolf), he’s the canine comic relief and the tragic figure combined, stubborn and smart and decent. “If I leak tears of grief, Zeke nudges my nose with his until I hold him. If my tears are of rage or frustration, he hides under my desk in the farthest room. He anchors our family. He lives to… shove us off the bed at night by increments, to help us eat our sandwiches. He is one damn fine dog.”
Walking With Zeke is a story of place as well, of how well we get on with our journey. It is fluid, but steered forward with a strong hand. Drawn from Clarke’s acclaimed web log Creek Running North (now Coyote Crossing at faultline.org), the book is a collection of journal entries and poetry, with settings ranging from suburban Pinole to the rough streets of Oakland, all moving toward the resolution of Clarke’s life with his dog.
The writing is startling, the images haunting and profound.
I could tell you how hard I cried reading this book, how I sobbed in front of flight attendants, waiters, and loved ones, but what purpose, really, would that serve? I could tell you that I sometimes think of Zeke even though I’ve never met him, sometimes see phantom Zekes in fields or on rocky outcroppings, but what do you care what goes on in my messy head? Yes, this book will devastate you, but it will also fill you with joy. Zeke’s joy. The spirit of a crazy run.
Perhaps the most glorious moment in Walking With Zeke is when Clarke entreats us to walk our dogs in that spirit, to appreciate all the little moments we have with the animals who live with us. To do what he no longer can with Zeke.
I never felt luckier to live with a dog than when I read his words.
“Through it all I have cherished the subtle love of an elderly dog, the gentle glances and the hours of staring, his eyes bound so tightly to my heart that he can wake me at four in the morning just by watching me from across the room. I would not trade these days for anything. His sweetness is solace.” - Chris Clarke, Walking With Zeke