Timoleon Vieta Come Home, by Dan Rhodes

Barking bliss of a shaggy-dog story

Timoleon Vieta is a mongrel dog with patches of black and white fur and "eyes as pretty as a little girl's". He has lived for five years in a farmhouse in a remote part of Umbria owned by an old man calling himself Carthusians Cockcroft. Theirs is a loving relationship, and a seemingly stable one when this novel begins.

Cockcroft has a penchant for drink, and young men, a succession of whom have either fleeced him or broken his heart, or both. His last great love was a boy in silver shorts with long blond hair and a talent for keeping the elderly blissfully happy. To Cockcroft's dismay, the boy in silver shorts fell into the clutches of his arch rival, the scheming Monty ("Misty") Moore, his collaborator on a doomed musical, Wrens.

Cockcroft is a composer of light, occasionally pop, music. He survives on the meagre royalties his accountant can be bothered to send. His biggest success was with the theme for a children's television series Bibbly and the Bobblies, and during the narrative he learns that the "pathetic puppet show" is going to be repeated on BBC2.

The first half of Timoleon Vieta Come Home shows how Cockcroft's peaceful life with his dog is disrupted when a tall young man, known only as the Bosnian, comes to stay indefinitely. The Bosnian pays his rent each Wednesday evening at seven precisely in a manner this reviewer is reluctant to disclose. The dog, a shrewd judge of people, hates the Bosnian, and his hatred is reciprocated. Cockcroft tries to placate them, torn between his affection for the animal and his fear of loneliness. He makes an unwise decision while in a drunken stupor, to the delight of no one but the Bosnian. Cockcroft has only the prospect of Wednesday evenings to comfort him.

So far, so barmy – or barking? The second half of this "sentimental journey" is concerned with Timoleon Vieta's attempts to return to his rightful master. His journey gives Dan Rhodes the opportunity, or excuse, to tell many beguiling and affecting stories, some tenuously linked to the mongrel's travels. One story takes place in Cambodia, another in the town of Todi. They read like little parables on love and illness and grief. These tender interludes come as a surprise and a relief after the hilarious complications of Cockcroft's housekeeping. And there, in the background, is the brave and resolute Timoleon Vieta, as determined as Lassie to achieve his lonely mission.

The book ends with two events – one shamelessly convenient, the other distressing. The flashbacks into the early lives of Cockcroft and the Bosnian are the least satisfying episodes because of Rhodes's need to explain how and why the men are the curious creatures they have become. But, overall, this is an amusing and exhilarating ragbag, at its best when the heroic stray is inspiring cautionary tales. It may be too eccentric, too diffuse, for those accustomed to conventional storytelling. I have to say that I rather loved it.

Paul Bailey's 'A Dog's Life' is published in July

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