FLUKE by James Herbert (1977, New English Library)
James Herbert, who passed this year, was better known in the UK than the US. He started out as a horror novelist with The Rats in 1974. This was followed by another book which proved to be popular, The Fog. Herbert continued to produce novels on many different topics and genres until his recent death. Stephen King thought highly of him and there is a good podcast which covers his work, which you can listen to here.
Fluke was his third novel and was first published in 1977. Herbet was trying to get away from the popular format which had done so well for him. This book can best be described as a dark fantasy. It concerns the adventures of a mongrel who has memories of his former life as a man. The book takes place in England.
Fluke opens with the narrator’s earliest memories as a puppy. He’s sold to a man who takes him home to a disapproving wife. The narrator is then dumped at a dog pound where his remembrance of being a man become more pronounced. He’s on the verge of being euthanized, when he makes an escape out the door and into the world at large. He tries to take up with an old woman who takes care of him, but her lazy son takes a dislike, sending him back into the world. Most of the book is describes the tastes, smells and impressions which are meaningful to a dog.
Eventually, he’s found by a junkyard dark names Rumbo and takes up with him. Rumbo introduces him to the junkyard owner, known as the “The Guvnor”. Here the narrator finally acquires his name “Fluke” when one of the Guvnor’s gangster friends discovers the dog can play a complicated street game. The Guvnor is described as having attributes which are equally cruel and kind. He keeps the dogs around and occasionally feeds them, but ties Fluke up in the rain when the dogs accidentally bring the cops into the junk yard.
Fluke stays with Rumbo long enough to learn more about the world and grows out of his puppy stage. But every good thing comes to an end. The Guvnor’s gangland associates finally does him in. Fluke is forced to travel alone, in search of who he is and where his former family might be living.
Toward the conclusion of the book, Fluke meets a badger who talks philosophically. The badger was a man in a former life himself and understands Fluke’s confusion. The badger advises Fluke to forget his human past: “You accept now. Accept your’re a dog, accept you are a fluke- or perhaps not a fluke. You must live as a dog now.” But Fluke continues in search of the family he remembers from his former life. He eventually finds them, leading to the novel’s near-tragic conclusion.
Much of the book is filled with Fluke’s philosophizing on the relationship between humans and dogs. He wonders why dogs are often used as negative metaphors. Why do dogs, who are the closest to humans of all animals, come in for so much derision. His final question: Is it because we are more like you than any other living creature?
I should make a mention of the 1995 film version which moves the action to the US. It seems to follow the narrative of the book somewhat, but turns the whole story into a family-friendly film. Gone is the sinister machinations of the Guvnor and his ilk. I haven’t finished watching it- just discovered it on Netflix- but it’s a different creature than the novel.
I’d recommend Fluke to anyone who’s looking for a good novel about canine-human relations, the mysteries of life, and The Great Beyond. There’s even ghosts in the novel- dogs can see them, but they are sad, wispy creatures. Not a book to be read if you’re looking for something sweet and cheery.