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My first and still most vivid memory of a Woody Allen movie is of the scene in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) in which Gene Wilder, ruined for love of a ewe, is left penniless in the gutter, guzzling Woolite from the bottle. Here Allen does at least have the grace to make an absurd joke of his apparent conviction that it’s the man fucking a creature weaker than himself — and incapable of meaningful consent — whom the audience should pity. “And you know,” I recall my mother telling a male friend, “it really was a pretty sheep.”

Inequality, domination, and cruelty are unavoidable in stories of any kind of love between a human and an animal, which may just be to say that they are about the hazards of human love and human caring in general. Such stories also hint at how our art, like our love, often involves, even depends on, an abuse of power. Writers, in particular, enjoy a good humblebrag about their own monstrosity: How would we know there’s genius at work if no one’s getting hurt?

The Black Wolf, Hudson Bay Variety © JT Vintage/Art Resource, New York City

The Friend (Riverhead Books, $25), Sigrid Nunez’s sneaky gut punch of a novel, is a consummate example of the human-animal tale. It presents itself as a thinly fictionalized grief memoir in which an unnamed, Nunez-like writer, after the suicide of her beloved mentor, adopts his heartbroken Great Dane, Apollo. “Find the right tone and you can write about anything,” the narrator says of her most famous predecessor in canine romance, J. R. Ackerley. The Friend’s tone is dry, clear, direct — which is the surest way to carry off this sort of close-up study of anguish and attachment. More for aesthetic than for moral reasons, the narrator gives up her attempt to write about a group of traumatized women with whom she’s been volunteering to slowly, painfully, construct instead the book we’re reading. Someone is being played here, but whether the game is at the reader’s expense or the subject’s (the dead mentor’s) remains deliberately unclear. Part of the tease involves the question of whether “something bad” is going to happen to the dog.

The friend to whom the bad thing has already happened was a fiction writer who left a string of wives and lissome student lovers in his wake. He was the kind of guy who liked to complain about the decline of culture and pitied himself — once he’d aged to the point where there could be no mistaking that the teenagers in his classes were fucking him only for “the thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees” — and forced the narrator to pity him, too. Young women, he told her, “are the most powerful people in the world.” (What could be more useful than the power to persuade men you don’t desire to fuck you anyway?) And it would be childish, he insisted, to deny that the classroom situation is inherently erotic. Herself a former student of his, the narrator doesn’t disagree, except perhaps on the issue of what teachers ought to do about that. At one point she wonders why womanizers are called wolves, when the wolf is “known for being a loyal, monogamous mate and devoted parent.” Presumably the answer is that wolves’ affections don’t extend to the lesser species they prey on.

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