Pauls Toutonghi spins a dog tale with local ties

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Pauls Toutonghi, author of Dog Gone, will be at New Dominion Bookshop on June 24. Photo: Michael Lionstar Pauls Toutonghi, author of Dog Gone, will be at New Dominion Bookshop on June 24. Photo: Michael Lionstar

Every good story needs an indomitable force that drives the narrative forward. In Pauls Toutonghi’s book Dog Gone, that force is a golden retriever mix named Gonker, who happens to be from this area.

“I first heard the story of Gonker when I went to my in-laws’ house for the first time,” says Toutonghi, the author of two novels, who lives and teaches in Portland. “I noticed dozens of pictures of the dog, more than of my wife, so I asked her about it. She said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get mom started on that.’ Well, of course I did. And I could feel the emotion in it. I recognized it as a great story. It had very high personal stakes, a timeline and a great deal of drama to it.”

While it may have begun as a story about a single lost dog, as Toutonghi became part of his wife’s family he found an even greater depth to the story. As a result, the book spans across time and geography, from an Akita puppy in Japan in 1949 who becomes the constant companion of the neglected daughter of an alcoholic, to the yappy bichon frise in Washington, D.C., dyed punk-rock purple in the 1980s, and finally to Gonker, lost on the Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail in 1998.

Gonker’s owner, Fielding Marshall, was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia when he adopted Gonker from the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA in 1992. By October 1998, Fielding and Gonker were living in Northern Virginia, when they took a road trip to the Jefferson National Forest and began hiking the Appalachian Trail. Gonker suffered from Addison’s disease, described by Toutonghi as “a disorder of the adrenal glands that, if untreated, is fatal,” and required a shot every month.

The tension in the story builds when Gonker bounds away in the mountains during hunting season and Marshall realizes, after hours of searching and not finding him, that Gonker has about 20 days left before the life-sustaining effects of his last treatment shot will wear off. As Marshall and his father, John, begin a search on the trail, Marshall’s mother, Ginny, sounds the alarm and the story is picked up in local and national papers.

Throughout the narrative, Toutonghi finds parallels of loss and salvation in the lives of a mother and her son, and explores human heartache and the healing effect of animal connection.

He says, “I feel like almost every family has a dog story. Often pets are the way we learn so many things about life, loving someone, caring for someone or even grief and loss.”

Local readers may feel a swell of pride for this area’s response to the family’s urgent cries for help, as well as for the beautiful and apt descriptions of rural Virginia in the fall. They might also get a kick out of some details about Charlottesville in the 1990s, like the fact that while the city now abounds with yoga studios, it was a near yogic desert in 1991 with only a single studio (housed in a barn).

Toutonghi says he took a similar approach to writing this work of nonfiction as he has with his novels. “I try to imagine myself into the scene, wherever it’s taking place, acting as a witness in that space,” he says. “The great thing about working with four people who lived this story was that I could contact them and ask them questions.”

While most narratives about beloved pets run the risk of being sentimental, the author, who grew up with a poodle mix and recently published an essay about two other canines in The New York Times’ Modern Love column, credits good editors and his ability to keep some perspective for helping him avoid this common pitfall.

“I’m a very sentimental person,” says Toutonghi. “So I had to be careful to rein that in, reminding myself continually, this is a single dog. Just look at our country right now and you will see any number of heartbreaking things. But, at the same time, the way that we care for one dog ends up being the story of how we care for each other. The way we care for the most vulnerable is the way that we care for each other. Look at who is victimized, anyone who is marginal. They feel the full effect of our society’s dysfunction. I had to be mindful that I was just writing a story about a lost dog, but in that story there were broader truths I could unlock.”

“Screw irony,” he says. “Earnestness is a value just as powerful as irony.”

Dog Gone highlights the impact the lives of canines have on humans charged with caring for them, as individuals throughout this region of Virginia become deeply invested in finding Gonker. Toutonghi explains why in his book: “…dogs are almost always decent—unchanging, unaltered, predictable. And their attitude toward us is unquestioningly kind. Dogs can make us more human—or more like what we imagine a good human to be. If we listen.”

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