Jim Eisenreich played Major League Baseball in the 1980s and ‘90s, including a stretch beginning in 1993 with my beloved Philadelphia Phillies. But, rightly or wrongly, I remember Eisenreich not because he was a member of the ’93 Phillies team that won the National League pennant, but because he was my first introduction to Tourette syndrome. (Or, as it is sometimes written, including in When Mr. Dog Bites, Tourette’s syndrome.) Eisenreich’s battles with Tourette’s included a stretch in the ‘80s when he was unable to play.
Today, Tourette’s is often used as a punchline, as popular culture focuses on what is known as coprolalia, the involuntary use of socially unacceptable words. Dylan Mint, the teenage narrator of Brian Conaghan’s When Mr. Dog Bites, is one of those with Tourette’s who also exhibits coprolalia. And no doubt one of an even smaller group who occasionally uses his Tourette’s as an excuse to say inexcusable things. Because while Dylan has Tourette’s, he is, first and foremost, a teenage boy.
A teenage boy who is trying to deal with his father being gone and his mother spending more and more time with a local cab driver. A teenage boy who has it bad for bad girl Michelle Malloy, A teenage boy who is convinced he is dying, and thus has concocted a list of things to do before he cacks it. Yes, “cacks” it. Dylan Mint lives in Scotland, and part of the joy of this novel is the local dialect Conaghan infuses throughout, including Mint’s own brand of rhyming slang:
“It was unbelievable how sex on legs she was. She oozed sex on legs, even though one leg was longer that the other. She wore one shoe bigger than the other. I think she got them specially made by a special big-shoe-wee-shoe-maker, because I’d never seen them in the shops. I couldn’t give a Friar Tuck, as this dame was nothing but sex on wonky donkey legs.
I wanted to run up and say “Hiya, Michelle. How was your summer, babe?” But I was afraid it might come out as: YOU’RE A SLUT NEW-BAG WHORE PEG-LEG, MICHELLE MALLOY” (17).
Mint goes to a special school. No, really—it’s called the Drumhill Special School. And thus all of his classmates navigate some sort of disability, whether physical, cognitive, or, in some cases, both. Conaghan has done well to avoid making When Mr. Dog Bites simply a novel of Tourette’s (even though that alone would be a service). What he has done is written a novel of difference, about existing in the “normal” world while being defined as not of this “normal” world. This sense of difference is extended in the character of Dylan’s best friend, Amir, who is harassed constantly not only because he is “special” but also because his family is from Pakistan. Their relationship is a highlight of the novel.
Conaghan shows us how the students at Drumhill Special School are just as hormonally crazed, status-obsessed, and socially awkward as teenagers everywhere can be. In their petty feuds and juvenile banter and even their bullying of each other, they are not “special” at all. They just are.
When Mr. Dog Bites reminded me of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. While the dog in Haddon’s book was real, “Mr. Dog” is how Dylan refers to the worst episodes of his Tourette’s, when he loses the power of speech entirely and starts barking. Both books give us insight into a world hidden from our “normal’ lives.
“That’s what she thought, but she didn’t know how difficult it was, how tough it was to keep it all in, how I had to clench my fists and toes as hard as I could so that it wouldn’t come out. How I squeezed my eyes shut so tight, hoping it would all go away, until I saw little white balls dancing around in the dark. I squeezed them so tight I gave myself a headache. And still nothing went away. Mom didn’t know any of this; nobody knew any of this” (193).
But now readers of Conaghan’s novel know something of this. And I also laughed more than I have reading a book in a long time. So give When Mr. Dog Bites a read—it really is, as Dylan himself might say, “the dog’s bollocks.” (That’s a high compliment, by the way.)