Since the 2005 publication of John Grogan’s mega-bestseller “Marley and Me,” the “pet that rescued me/taught me/helped me grow up” memoir has become a booming literary subgenre.
Brian McGrory’s poignant and funny new book, “Buddy,” which traces much of the Globe columnist’s adult life and career, has some of that same “Marley” flavor, but McGrory takes the pet memoir to a hilarious new place as a crazed rooster competes with him over who will rule his new family’s suburban roost.
As the book opens, the conflicts here are many, as McGrory, a city loving, formerly footloose Bostonian, finds himself in a house in a sleepy suburb with the woman he loves, her two young daughters, two dogs (one hers, one his), two rabbits, and McGrory’s worst nightmare:
a rooster named Buddy who views McGrory as an intruder who must be driven out with ear-splitting, 5 a.m. wake-up calls and head-on, jihadist attacks.
If Buddy hates McGrory, the novice suburbanite returns the favor, spending much of this book plotting Buddy’s demise. But there is one problem: Buddy may be more popular in the household than McGrory, who daydreams about dropping Buddy off at a poultry farm. “I’d help wipe away the tears” of the grieving females in the family, writes McGrory in a sardonic moment, “and heat up some chicken fingers for lunch.”
How, you may ask, did McGrory find himself such a fish out of water? It begins with the death of Harry, the faithful, 10-year-old golden retriever who had seen McGrory through the takeoff of his newspaper career, a tough divorce, and the transition back to happy singledom. While the loss of Harry leaves McGrory bereft, it also brings him to a new relationship with Pam, Harry’s recently divorced veterinarian.
Throughout, McGrory vividly explores his frustrations in adapting to difficult changes, from the death of Harry, to learning how to become a suburban stepfather, to living “cooped up” with the aggressive Buddy, detailing it all with self-effacing humor and a winning ability to dramatize the “man vs. rooster” conflict with scenes that are self-revelatory and laugh-out-loud funny.
McGrory is thwarted at every turn as he seeks to convince Pam and the kids that Buddy would be better off elsewhere. As Buddy lets out head-splitting cock-a-doodle-doos each morning, a sleep-deprived McGrory waits for the neighbors to complain. Instead, the whole community unaccountably falls in love with the rooster: “he was becoming a mini-tourist attraction, a local destination, a neighborhood mascot,” an exasperated McGrory observes.
The rooster certainly complicates McGrory’s relationship with Pam’s two daughters, who adore Buddy. For example, when McGrory refuses to pet the rooster, who’d bitten him before, daughter Abigail mocks McGrory: “Awww, great big Bwian is afwaid of a lil lil chicken. . . . Brian’s a bigger chicken than Buddy,” while in the background the other daughter makes chicken noises. Ouch!
In the end, McGrory learns to adapt and discovers that “real life is about tradeoffs.’’ He comes to understand that he needs Pam and must embrace the package of suburbia, daughters, pets, and crazed rooster that comes along with her. He even decides that if he can accept Buddy as a pet, anything is possible.
This may be one of the strangest journeys of self-discovery you’ll ever read. It turns out that for McGrory, as it was for Emily Dickinson, hope is a thing with feathers.