Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean
This is less the story of Rin Tin Tin (and his offspring) than of the man that owned him…and after that, of the men and women that sought to preserve the memory of him. I am a sucker for dog books, but since dogs don’t talk, one must be satisfied with stories of their owners. Just as Marley and Me was not so much the story of the dog than of John Grogan and his family, so Rin Tin Tin must be imagined through this book and the massive archive of film footage of him and his chosen successors.
What struck me from the century of history behind the name of Rin Tin Tin—the first dog with the name was born in 1918 in war-torn France—was how the first man to own him, Lee Duncan, never seemed to develop the same kind of love for any dog of the same name that followed. None had that unique set of qualities that so endeared Rinty to his owner in the first place. But a huge industry rose and fell on the tide of public opinion through the war years and after, carried on and on by men with more conviction than talent, more hubris than humility. When, many times, the rights to the Rin Tin Tin name could be passed on profitably to keep the flame alive, it was often sequestered and squandered, its value magnified to untenable proportions.
Susan Orlean must have wondered many times how she had gotten herself into this project. It required long, deep dives into the lives of obsessives, and it leaves one feeling slightly deranged and breathless to think that the story of that talented canine comes from the dark recesses of neglected warehouses and lives warped to fit the myth. I listened to the audio of this book, and I had to laugh at how many times I was sure the story was over—by her telling and the inflection in her voice--only to hear another section declaring itself on my mobile device. The name of Rinty was resurrected so many times under such improbable circumstances, that one simply has to credit the wild imaginations of the rights-holders, and one feels a little sorry that the original great Rinty is not alive to be celebrated.
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