Dylan Mint, the refreshingly honest protagonist of Brian Conaghan’s debut novel, When Mr Dog Bites, is a typical 16-year-old in many ways.
He has a “best bud” named Amir, with whom he texts and discusses girls, life and the things they want to do to make it mean something, a girl he has his eye on named Michelle Malloy who, it seems, doesn’t want much to do with him, and some parental issues that are actually bigger and more complex than even he is aware of.
Like many teenagers, Dylan doesn’t have the resources to deal with many of the situations he faces, nor the answers to the big questions of his life such as who is the taxi driver who keeps parking in his dad’s spot, why is his mum sad sometimes and happy others, and why is his dad away so much with the army on top secret missions.
So, all very typical.
What makes things so much more complicated for Dylan is that he has Tourette’s, a condition that means he swears, screams and howls like a dog (hence the book’s title)whenever he gets stressed.
Which given he’s a typical young guy who wants to have sex, spend time with good friends and not be defined by his disability – he views this last goal as somewhat unreachable for much of the book since there is no cure for Tourette’s as he mentions more than once – is not the best hand to be dealt in life.
“Amir is my best bud. He knows all about me. I know all about him. He goes to Drumhill for his mental problems, which are too many to mention, but let’s just say he does a lot of staring into blank space and making bonkers noises … We have a secret pact not to call each other any of those evil names other people call us. Especially the ones we hate.” (P.3)
What makes Dylan such a joy to spend time with is that, in Conaghan’s insightfully capable hands, he is real and honest about life.
Unhindered by the usual filters many of us apply to interacting with others – although to be fair this lack of self-editing causes him more grief at times than it does any palpable benefit – he simply says what’s on his mind.
Dylan of course, doesn’t this as any kind of plus necessarily; it’s simply how life is for him and he doesn’t really know a world where he simply doesn’t say what’s on his mind (albeit with caveats – he knows what does and doesn’t upset his mum, and he know what will fire up a bully to inflict far greater pain but that’s the result of hard-won life experience than any intuitive quality.)
When he overhears some terrible news, that he’s only got until March next year to live, he tackles it with his customary straightforwardness, telling only Amir he’s not long for this world, and coming up with a list “Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It” which contains the ultimate big ticket bucket list items for a guy his age.
You begin to suspect fairly early on that the diagnosis, and many of the certainties that underpin Dylan’s life, are not as he understands them to be, and as this delightful frank and bittersweet book gathers pace, you come to appreciate just how little Dylan understands his own small part of the world.
And yet these revelations, which are accompanied by 1960s Batman TV series-esque capitalised responses and hyper-excited words such as “BONKERINOS”, “A-MAYONAISE-ING” and “SHIZENHOWZEN”, all of which get a strenuous workout when the truth really hit the proverbial, don’t in any way, shape or form serve to diminish what we know and love about this remarkable young man.
In fact, as truth after truth hits Dylan, he actually deals with them admirably well.
There are tears, arguments and overreactions naturally – he is both deeply human and a teenager so these are to be expected.
But there is also an acceptance of the new realities which are percolating into his life, perhaps borne of the fact that he has long ago accustomed himself to one overpowering, undismissable reality – his Tourette’s – that puts all the others into perspective.
Perhaps but the one thing that becomes beautifully and wonderfully clear is Dylan’s unalloyed joy at the possibilities life offers him in the wake of all these secrets being revealed.
“Doc Colm was eighty-five percent confident that it [a new Tourette’s treatment] would be a rip-roaring success. Doc Colm should have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, a Blue Peter badge and a Great Scot Award rolled into one. He was just like Jesus, if you believe all that stuff.” (P. 322)
The real beauty of When Mr Dog Bites is, apart from its undisguised honesty and truthfulness about how different people can be, its articulation of how much everyone is alike in the really important stuff when you take the time to really get to know them.
And we do get to know Dylan very well, privy to every creatively expressed and heartfelt thought and feeling, all of them rendered with exquisite good humour, crude honesty (he has Tourette’s so don’t expect a book free from swearing and vulgarities) and a joyous optimism that despite everything, he may yet get to execute every last item on his “Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It” list.
The tone throughout is a joy to immerse yourself in, a potently rich, extravagantly warm and immensely charming – trust me you can’t help but fall in love with Dylan Mint – excursion into a world that is in many ways removed from what most people know but which is, and this is a universal truth we need to hold close especially in these extreme and fractured times, absolutely and irrevocably human in every single way that counts.