The recent death of Gunter Grass sent my left arm skyward toward the shelf where my paperback of Dog Years has sat unread for at least a lifetime's worth of its title. I took it down, snorted its vintage 1960s paperback scent (true madeleine for the bookish), and began reading Grass's big black shaggy hund of a novel.
My reaction to Dog Years is as tripartite as the book's structure: the first section grabbed me, the second nearly lost me, and the third impressed me deeply. (Perhaps interestingly, this mirrors my reaction to The Tin Drum, where the first section knocked me out, the second impressed me less, and the third least of all--although, as in Dog Years, there are some very good scenes throughout.) As that parenthetical comment implies, any reading of Dog Years takes place under the inescapable circular shadow of Oskar Matzerath's tinny drum. This novel was clearly Grass's attempt to make lightning strike twice, so it's not surprising that it almost fizzles out. (I suspect that many readers don't make it through the overlong 'Love Letters' section--I came close to bailing out there.) The first two-thirds of Dog Years largely tread upon soggy ground already footprinted by Oskar and his family (who make Hitchcockian cameos here), and while the sections are mostly enjoyable and the prose adventurous, there's little sense of the author pushing himself beyond his literary past. The 'Materniads' section, however, affords Grass the opportunity for a more extensive and pointed satire of postwar Germany and the 'economic miracle' than is found in the earlier novel. This section also seems imaginatively and linguistically superior to the rest of Dog Years--it's as though Grass spends 350 pages cranking his literary engine and here the sucker finally fires and we're off. Matern's picaresque journey of Rabelaisian revenge, the 'mealworm prophecy' satire of the Springer press empire, the ultra-high satire of Heidegger and Habermas, the long radio play section that satirizes the West German fetishization of 'discussion' and 'conversation' and in which Grass has a character say, "We discuss in order not to have to soliloquize"--all of this is angry, funny, bitter, brilliant; it's Grass at his best. And the 'Materniads' ends with perhaps its most impressive section of all, an extended tour de force tour de mineshaft in which Amsel's infernal underground automata Swiftianly satirize virtually every aspect of the surface society. If all 600 pages of Dog Years had been as brilliant as its last 200, the book would've blown more minds than LSD.