.Acclaimed Author Elizabeth McKenzie Launches in Santa Cruz

The writer’s latest novel, ‘Dog of the North,’ is a quirky page-turner that finds meaning in life’s unpredictable moments

Elizabeth McKenzie’s Dog of the North—part vision quest, part scavenger hunt—delivers on the previous mayhem of the celebrated author’s The Portable Veblen.

In this tale of one woman’s search for personal stability, hapless divorcée Penny Rush survives a series of extended family catastrophes before heading to Australia to track down her missing parents. Armed with poor judgment and a heart of gold, the young Millennial sets out to rescue her childhood from the hands of neurotic relatives. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that she needs saving, often literally, as during a flight to Sydney accompanied by her 93-year-old gin-swilling grandpa Arlo. A precarious protagonist, Penny delivers us into a thicket of neo-hippie losers, brilliant crackpots, and utopian ex-pats, each sweeter and more exasperating than the next. McKenzie has an impish gift for names: Pincher, Sherman, Boaz, Gaspard, Bram, Dale and others. Think Eat Pray Love crossed with On the Road plus a dozen episodes of “Seinfeld.” 

“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Those iconic lyrics from Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” could be sung by McKenzie’s Penny Rush.

Never afraid to pepper the mundane with the sparkle of magic realism, McKenzie is on her firmest literary footing yet with Dog—the title refers to a funky live-in van lent to our narrator by a family friend. When we meet Penny, she already has a sober sense of her own failings. Her life is in shambles, yet they pale compared to the failures she meets on her escape to Australia. Vehicles, animals, step-relatives, rendezvous, ancient geology—all begin to go woefully south.

Applying her genius for sensory detail, McKenzie notices everything, every tiny, innocuous, and disgusting bit of avoidance behavior comprising the early 21st-century human animal. No bodily function eludes her attention. Every sordid detail of gastrointestinal malfunction or age-related infirmity aims squarely at the reader’s need to be entertained, even enlightened, similar to the passive-aggressive comedy of Groucho Marx and Steve Martin. 

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A first-person narrator, Penny is immediately appealing. It’s impossible not to love a protagonist who can barely negotiate a traffic stop. “It was strange to think that only a week ago, I’d started my day at the run-down Westward Ho! Motel in Santa Cruz, completely out of money, about to give up the keys to my Chevette to a man named Delbert Winkle who would tell me a long story during the transaction about having beaten up a kid who was torturing a cat and subsequently spending the last six month in jail.” 

The eye of this literary storm, Penny is surrounded by a Dickensian bevy of weird, strange, deranged, opinionated, narcissistic and physically challenged individuals who make her seem as normal as a Norman Rockwell illustration. We encounter a wayward toupee, a dog with an unpronounceable name, a psychotic pediatrician, and the mythic poetry of the Australian outback. “It could not be easy to be a man with spidery red eyebrows and many rust-colored double chins,” Penny muses of her first encounter with Burt Lampey, whose van/crash pad starts the initial flood of unfortunate incidents.

The conclusion of Dog of the North is a perfect and satisfying acceleration toward a possible happily ever after, balanced by moments of psychological darkness. It exudes a woozy Coen Brothers aura, perfumed with dark humor and top notes of absurdist tragedy. Under all the colorful mania are a tender heart and a hero of post-modern persistence. Dog of the North is a lot more than simply an effortless read. Penny Rush stops at nothing to rewrite the family mystery and, in the process, stumbles upon something even juicier.

Elizabeth McKenzie appears in conversation with Karen Joy Fowler on March 14, 7pm, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. bookshopsantacruz.com


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