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The Independent Culture
It's obvious that dogs can read. Or so Willy tells his dog, Mr Bones, the canine narrator of Timbuktu, the new novel from Paul Auster (right). Auster will read from the book on Sunday at the Hay Festival and in the Purcell Room on Wednesday.

Why else, Willy asks, would people put up "No dogs allowed except for seeing-eye dogs" signs if not for the dog's benefit? They're hardly there, he argues, for the owner to read.

Mr Bones knows this. A genetic hodge-podge himself - "part-collie, part- Labrador, and part spaniel" - he is, more importantly, "part-canine puzzle": he can think in and understand the English language.

Mr Bones and Willy - a failed poet who fills notebooks and wanders the streets as a "rough- and-ready soldier of fortune" - set off for Baltimore. There, Willy, already smelling of death, hopes to leave his notebooks and Mr Bones in the care of an old high-school teacher.

They are on a quest, as many of Auster's protagonists have been, but in Timbuktu Willy doesn't make it, and Mr Bones finds himself alone, falling in with the young son of a Chinese restaurant owner, and then adopted by the kind of family Willy despised as living in "two-car and home-improvement- loan America".

Mr Bones, though, never finds a new Willy: the seemingly loving family has the vet cut off his "old familiars", and, after initial befuddlement, Mr Bones quickly realises he's heading for the kennels rather than on the family's idyllic-sounding vacation.

While Timbuktu is a slight but very readable story often bordering on Disney-like sentimentality - which is hard to avoid with a clever canine who has doggy dreams and kids who need a loving pet - Auster's prose style makes it shine, and you find yourself rooting for Mr Bones all the same.

What the novel won't do, though, is convince Auster's detractors that this major American writer is back on high literary form, that he has his mind firmly on narrative prose instead of the next film project. Older American writers such as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo have been at the top of their game in the late-1990s; a talented younger-generation writer like Auster should be there with them.

Paul Auster: Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye (01497 821299) Sun, 7.45pm, pounds 6.50; Purcell Room, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) Wed, 7.30pm, pounds 6.50/pounds 4

`Timbuktu' by Paul Auster is published in hardback by Faber & Faber on 7 Jun, pounds 12.99

Stuart Price