Things haven't been going too well lately for Paul Gustavson, protagonist of Pete Nelson's I Thought You Were Dead. The freelance writer has signed on to write the book Nature for Morons, part of the wildly popular Morons series, but he enjoys drinking at his favorite dive bar far more than he enjoys working. His wife has left him, his girlfriend is simultaneously dating another man, and his father has just had a stroke, leaving his older brother Carl to once again take over and show everyone how much more together his life is than Paul's.
The best thing going for Paul is Stella: she's witty, wise and unconditionally accepting of Paul's many flaws. She also happens to be a geriatric German Shepherd/yellow Lab mix who can no longer climb the stairs and is feeling her health slipping away.
Yes, Stella can talk. And while that might turn off many readers of serious literature—many readers, period—Stella is actually quite the well-rounded character. So well rounded, in fact, readers may wonder why she's a dog at all and not an office mate or pal at the bar—in short, a human of some sort.
But this oddball relationship is what makes Paul seem redeemable; this affection will cause readers to root for him. Though the book is often murky, sad and mired in "a dark, private, pissy place" where Paul is "free to loathe himself"—secure in the knowledge that no human loves or cares about him—the resolution of the story is happier than that. It's so neat, in fact, that one can almost see the novel as a big-screen romantic comedy, with Steve Carell as Paul and maybe Sandra Bullock as the woman who sees past his gruff exterior, limited prospects and romantic issues—who finds something that’s worth paying attention.
Ultimately, I Thought You Were Dead is about the catastrophes that make a person realize his life is a mess, then do everything he can to put his life back together—perhaps, in the process, creating something better than he dared to hope for.
Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.