Teeth of the Dog

Teeth of the Dog

by Jill Ciment, Bergner

The author of the critically hailed Half a Life steps boldly into world-class literary territory with this tightly structured yet richly expansive literary thriller that will call to mind the work of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky.

Thomas, a renowned American anthropologist, his much younger wife Helene, and Finster, a young,

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The author of the critically hailed Half a Life steps boldly into world-class literary territory with this tightly structured yet richly expansive literary thriller that will call to mind the work of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky.

Thomas, a renowned American anthropologist, his much younger wife Helene, and Finster, a young, culturally shipwrecked AMR (American mercantile riffraff), as he's known locally, enact a tense personal drama of love and tragedy against the much larger historical drama of the Melanesian island of Vanduu, a steaming crucible where East and West, fundamentalist piety and free market fire, decay and sterility augur the future of the world.
Helene has lured Thomas to Vanduu in the desperate hope that its tropical splendor can miraculously heal the fracture that has cleaved their lives: Thomas's health is failing, and Helene simply can't accept that she might lose him. Unable to cope with the gulf of loneliness that his illness has opened between them, Helene finds herself growing more and more desperate as they tour this lush, clamorous paradise that turns out to be no paradise at all. And then Finster appears—young, louche, popping up everywhere Thomas and Helene happen to be, dogging Helene like a lovesick puppy. When a tragic mishap caused by their dance of three accidentally takes the life of a Vanduuan child, Helene, separated from both men, becomes a fugitive left to fend for herself on this troubled, surreal, inexplicably foreign speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
With a distilled emotional power and prose so tactile you can feel the eroticism and heat on every page, this riveting tale enacts large themes—the inevitable consequences of the hegemony of the American dream, the inexorable loss of a deep, adult love compared to the hopped-up sex-for-sale enticements Finster offers in its place, and a glimpse into what progress, with its spiraling allurements, has truly forfeited.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Skillful, vivid, and spare, Teeth of the Dog . . . serves up both comedy and tragedy. Ciment, like E. M. Forster, has a special understanding of the limits of human communication."
—Booklist (starred review)

"Ciment's multilayered novel is a taut, intelligent literary thriller in which character and fate, and a yawning chasm of cultural differences, unite to cause tragedy. . . . This knowing tour of human frailty will serve to secure Ciment's reputation for intelligent themes and uncompromising prose."        
—Publishers Weekly

"Reading Half a Life feels like sitting down to dinner with someone you really like. It gets late, you have to work in the morning, yet the intimacy is so intense, the story so compelling, that instead of going home you say, 'And what happened then?' Ciment writes with absolute compassion . . . full of humor, generosity and amazing tenacity . . . nothing short of heroic."        
—Los Angeles Times

"Luminous, sad, funny, and affecting . . . so emotionally detailed, so physically well observed that [every scene] burns an image into the reader's memory."
—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

David Sacks
...[F]ast-paced and handsomely written....Ciment writes tight prose with carefully selected details, often quirky or comical....Helene's journey toward independence suggests a metaphor for a woman's passage toward middle age...the book broods on the inevitability of change.
The New York Times Book Review
Vince Passaro
An updated Conrad tale, full of moral ambiguity and horror...so brutally evokes the tin-roofed humidity and broken-down infrastructure of a third-rate tropical holiday, you practically sweat onto the pages.
Kirkus Reviews
There will always be innocents wandering about in the worst places abroad, and most of them will always be Americans, like the two described here by Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, 1993).

The Melanesian island of Vanduu is about as far off the map as you can fall. Dropped somewhere in between the Philippines and Indonesia, it's primitive, remote, and not exactly part of the tourist circuit. Blessed with beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, a mishmash of competing religions, and a pre-modern culture, it could offer a good holiday to a sybaritic anthropologist, however, and that probably explains why Thomas Strauss is there. A renowned American scholar of erotic rituals, Thomas visits Vanduu with his wife, Helene. Nearly 30 years his junior, Helene's an ex-stripper who became Thomas's guide to the sexual netherworlds he wrote about before marrying her. In Vanduu, they meet Adam Finster, an American expatriate who makes a living selling love potions-pheronome perfumes-to the locals. Adam tries to show Thomas and Helene the "real" Vanduu, but after he seduces the sexually starved Helene, she flees him and goes off with Thomas on their own. This proves to be a big mistake when Thomas kills a native boy in a car accident and later dies of a heart attack, leaving Helene to face the prospect of a manslaughter trial on her own. Unwilling to subject herself to the vagaries of Vanduuan justice, she turns fugitive and tries to flee the country secretly. To succeed, she needs the help of someone steeped in the local customs, and she knows no one in Vanduu but Adam. Can he be trusted to get her out of this mess?

Somewhat formulaic and too self-consciously rough ("He cupped her breastlike a man cups a handful of cherished water"). But a good read-told with real style in the best Graham Greene manner. .

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Product Details

Publication date:
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6.03(w) x 8.59(h) x 0.89(d)

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The Vatu Chalets were a half dozen plywood cabins scattered along a path through the jungle.  As soon as they swung into the parking lot and Helene killed the engine, Finster tried to catch her eye.  He thought if he could just get her to look at him, he'd be able to glean whether or not their kiss had the same lingering effect on her as it had on him, but Helene seemed to be looking at everything in the known universe except Finster—the A-frame stilt lobby, the swarms of gnats, the pregnant goat eating a Pringle box out of a garbage can, Thomas's hawklike profile in the last spokes of daylight.  It hardly mattered; just being in her presence filled him with a heady surge of hope.
They started up the steep steps to the lobby. Finster noticed that Helene firmly took hold of Thomas's elbow.  The gesture was protective, almost nurselike, and he could see it bothered Thomas.  He was a step or two below them.  From this angle, he could just make out a hint of Helene's upper thighs under the fringe of her cutoffs, and they were perfect.  Once again, he couldn't imagine what she was doing with this old man.
When they opened the lobby doors, the teenage concierge was squatting on the floor, preparing a wad of betel.  He managed to pop it into his mouth before Finster ordered him to the front desk and began berating him for not renting his friends a chalet.  Actually, Finster liked the boy (they'd shared a joint earlier that afternoon), but he wanted to impress Helene with his worldly authority, his American can-do.
After the concierge sullenly shuffled off to find some fresh linen, Finster suggested that Helene and Thomas go to their chalet, relax, and take a shower.  He said he'd be back in an hour with a feast for all three of them.  They didn't argue.  They looked grateful.  They were standing under the lobby's listless ceiling fan, and though Finster couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was something sad about them.

        Around eight he swung by Helene and Thomas's cabin.  They were fully dressed, supine on the bed: Thomas was asleep, Helene was staring at the ceiling, and once again, Finster had the ill-defined sense that something was amiss in their relationship.  Though Helene gently stirred Thomas awake, Finster intuited a frayed tension under her seemingly attentive veneer.
He loped beside her all the way to the gazebo.
"Quite a feast," Thomas said, peeling open the screen door.
In the center of the gazebo sat a low round table laden with food—slabs of fried Spam, corn beef hash, a plate of taro mash the consistency of rabbit glue, and a big bowl of Top Ramen noodles.
"I told the woman not to serve Spam," Finster said. "I told her not to serve tinned anything."
"It's fine Finster, really," Thomas said.  "It looks delicious."  He sat down on a throw of pillows, Helene sat down next to him, and Finster wedged himself in beside her.
"I'd stick with the noodle soup," Finster told Helene. He ladled out a bowl for her, carefully skimming off the amoeba-shaped globules of fat.  Then he fixed one for Thomas and himself as well.  "So, did you guys come to see the caves or the psychosurgeries?"
"The caves," Helene said.
Finster smiled.  "They're awesome. They look like . . ."  He could barely remember what they looked like: He hadn't been there in years.  "They look like . . . like a movie set, only they're real."  He couldn't believe how idiotic he sounded, more like the San Fernando Valley boy he once was than the Gauguin figure he hoped Helene perceived him to be: He knew he should stop smoking so much pot.  "I'd love to show them to you," he said.  "Unfortunately, I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I could take you there on Sunday."
"Thanks, Finster but I'm sure we can manage," Thomas said.
"Hey, Tom, trust me, you need a guide.  You can't just wander around the caves by yourselves.  They're filled with live shells.  The caves were an ammo dump during the war.  At least once every couple of years some Japanese honeymooners go up in a puff."

"Must put a damper on tourism."
"Actually, it gives the caves a romantic charge."
Thomas put down his soup.  He'd barely touched it.  "Do they still perform psychosurgeries?"
"To be honest, I've never seen one.  But my customers swear by them."
"Customers for what?" Helene asked.
"For this."  Finster dug into the pocket of his aloha shirt and pulled out a vial.  He set it down gingerly on Helene's plate, as one might serve a dessert truffle.  "Smell it."
"Am I going to get high or something?"
"Just smell it."
Helene glanced at Thomas, then uncapped the vial and waved it under her nose. "Oh my God, it's like . . . like essence of Woolworth."  She closed her eyes and sniffed again.  "I'm having a Proustian experience. I'm back in aisle six, between the Whitman samplers and the hair spray, and my whole childhood is unfolding before me.  How did you bottle this?  Why  did you bottle it?"
"It's perfume," he said defensively.  "With pheromones.  It's a sexual attractant, like an aphrodisiac.  I didn't come up with the scent, I just import the stuff.  Among other things," he added.
"It has human pheromones in it?" Thomas asked.
"Actually, they're pig pheromones, but hey, it's a pig culture."
"And the locals believe it works?"
"Big time.  And they  really like the scent.  They  think of it as some kind of American love potion," he said, staring at Helene.  But she wasn't listening.  She seemed to have abruptly lost interest in the whole conversation, and he wondered why.
"How do they even know about it?" Thomas asked.
"I advertise in the local rags, and in Guns and Ammo.  Guns and Ammo  has a whopping circulation in these islands."  He turned to Helene.  "You can come with me tomorrow on my delivery rounds if you want.  My customers are pretty interesting, and to say the least, it's off the beaten track."
Thomas shook his head and smiled.  "So you're an entrepreneurial Malinowski of a sort."
"Bronislaw Malinowski.  He was an anthropologist who wrote a book about Melanesia called The Sexual Life of Savages."
"Like the title," Finster said, grinning.  He helped himself to one of Thomas's cigarettes, lit it, then tried to catch Helene's eye again, but it was hopeless.  "Actually, I see myself more in Conradian terms. A Kurtz without the horror, the horror hypocrisy."

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What People are saying about this

Katharine Weber
Like a fever dream, Teeth of the Dog leaves you dazed and surprised.
— Author of The Music Lesson

Meet the Author

Jill Ciment is the author of Half a Life, The Law of Falling Bodies, and Small Claims. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Foundation for the Arts and teaches at Columbia University.

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