This book made me cry three separate times, and I don’t do that. Ever.
The book is Just Life, by Neil Abramson, and is one of half a dozen that I bought recently from bookoutlet.com, which sells remaindered books for between $2.49 and $7.00, paperbacks and hardcovers alike, music to the ears of someone who reads as much as I do. The only downside to these prices (which, let’s face it, is also an upside) is that shipping is high unless you order $35 worth of merchandise, in which case it’s free. So when I notice a book or two that I want and they have, I scroll through the rest of what is on offer and pick up enough to get that free shipping. Just Life came in one of those mixed bags. I’d never heard of either it or its author, but the story sounded good.
It starts out like a dystopian suspense novel: It’s told in third person, but from the points of view of four major characters, one of whom is a veterinarian and proprietor of a no-kill animal shelter, in the Riverside borough of New York City, that is being zoned out of existence. Adding to her desperate attempts to save her shelter or find somewhere for her dogs to go is an additional disaster: There is some sort of virus, appearing only in that neighborhood, that is making children sick. One has just died, more are severely ill, and the virus, which was initially blamed on pigeons, is now felt to be the responsibility of dogs with rabies in Central Park.
Samantha, the vet, and anyone as familiar as she is with infectious viruses (her estranged father is a researcher) is frankly skeptical that this could be the cause, but she knows from experience how fear can work on the human mind, and worries that panic and ignorance will mandate a “QCK,” an acronym for quarantine-cull-kill.
The other major characters in the book—a city policeman (formerly a K9 cop) assigned by choice to this neighborhood, a homeless, damaged teenager with a special affinity for dogs, and an elderly Catholic priest suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s—personify the double entendre indicated by the title of the book: They are all attempting to live a just life, and part of that mandate is a concern for all creatures, not just for humans.
The other meaning of the title becomes clear as the back story reveals that there are no viruses in animals to which humans are ultimately resistant, and vice versa—that we are all “just life,” and equally susceptible. But local politicians and bureaucrats, including the governor (who is running for president and wants to act the hero) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refuse to admit that proposition could be true, and the protagonists must mount a defense in a war against dogs.
In his afterword, Abramson writes about how he hoped to show the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and how achieving compassion in the face of fear is a daily struggle. The story line in Just Life emphasizes this battle and highlights the difference between those who love all life and those who prioritize humans. In the process it is suspenseful, moving, and eye-opening.
At one point in the book, someone asks Sam what she would do if someone came for her dogs. She remembered that in veterinary school one of her professors had made her class memorize a quote from William Ralph Inge:
“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”
Anyone who is a dog person knows that the most badly treated of them will nonetheless forgive a human who shows them a little kindness. This book, for me, posed the question, What if we could all be so empathetic?
It was also a fast-paced, gripping story with both people and causes worthy of embracing, and an exciting ending that has you afraid to turn the final pages.