Local author’s book is much more than a dog’s tale

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Al Martinez pays homage to his English springer spaniel in “Barkley: A Dog’s Journey.”

By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times

If you have ever owned a pet, and especially if you have ever lost a beloved animal, “Barkley: A Dog’s Journey,” in which Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez pays beautiful homage to his English springer spaniel, is a must read.

Through wit, wisdom and pure love of man’s best friend, Martinez, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, outlines the last nine months he and his wife, Joanne Cinelli, spent with their dog, which was diagnosed with leukemia. The story weaves in and out of a road trip they took with Barkley through California and Oregon.

“I like dogs. I’ve always had a dog,” Martinez said in a recent interview with The Malibu Times. “Even as a kid and all of our lives growing up, I had dozens of them, but none like Barkley. He was the most amazing dog we ever had.”

Even though the subtitle of the book is “A Dog’s Journey,” much of the story is actually a human journey. Through the tale of Barkley’s last road trip, the author talks about various aspects of the human condition as he describes the encounters they have while on the road.

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Intricately woven into the stories of puppy romps and car rides, the author has brilliant interludes of human reflection as he writes of Barkley’s diagnosis and compares it to his own experiences facing death in war and open-heart surgery. He also injects current affairs into the story and writes about the plight of innocent victims of terrorism and about the war in Iraq.

“The world tumbles downward in free fall,” he writes, eloquently using the brief argument to illustrate that everyone “needs a quiet corner at such times, and one needs a dog.”

This affinity for not only dogs but also animals at large is a family affair.

“Because of my wife’s influence, the whole family has loved animals,” Martinez said. “My daughter was in 4-H, my other daughter rode horses through the trails of what is now Topanga State Park and my son went to work for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy because he loved the outdoors and loved animals.”

Martinez recounts various mischievous and fun acts that all pet owners can relate to, including stealing cookies, drenching the house with a violent shake after a bath and cuddle time in front of the television. However, he goes a step further by assigning the dog thoughts and feelings that many assume they have. The journey is often humorous, at times heart wrenching and, above all, a Martinez-esque commentary on relationships in general.

“As sweet a dog as he was, I didn’t just want to do a dog book,” Martinez said. “I wanted to make this journey kind of a metaphor for life’s journey. I wanted to work in a little philosophy and some observations about time and about life. I wanted it also to be a relationship book, as much about Cinelli and I as about Barkley, and about the three of us together.”

Following Barkley’s diagnosis, Martinez and Cinelli decided they would spend 24 hours a day and 3,000 miles traveling with their dog. He recounts a number of firsts and lasts for Barkley as they explored the West Coast together.

“I knew it would be a sad book because the dog dies,” Martinez said. “But I wanted to work as much humor into it as possible, showing the dog when he was alive and vital and energetic, and bouncing about with his ears flopping.”

Among other things on their final voyage, Martinez relays humorous and emotional anecdotes about such things as the first time Barkley saw snow and how the couple discovered that their dog enjoyed pork loin. In an attempt to make him comfortable and show him an unforgettable time, they often ordered an extra steak or meat loaf to go at restaurants to take to the dog anxiously waiting in the car.

In addition to the detailed accounts of Barkley’s interactions with small town locals, the book is also a veritable travel guide. Martinez often identifies motel owners by name and describes the nuances of various settlements throughout Northern California and Oregon that is the antithesis of life in Los Angeles. He describes a leash-free doggie utopia in many towns void of rigid laws and small dog parks.

“It was fun meeting some of these people in the small towns who had never been to L.A. or San Francisco,” Martinez said. “They are good people and interesting people. The towns were important because I wanted to locate where we were and to put Barkley in that context.”

Martinez also spends a couple of pages tracing the history of canines and charting their functions throughout history and sums it up, as any good “parent” would, by saying his dog was one of a kind.

“Barkley epitomized that relationship between human and animal,” Martinez said. “There was a connection that is difficult to define. A dog will love you no matter what you do and what you say. That connection is so deep. It’s almost spiritual.”

Al Martinez and wife Joanne Cinelli live in Topanga Canyon, which he affectionately refers to as a community of liberal, free-spirited and animal-understanding attitudes. Martinez has been a journalist for more than 50 years and is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. They have a new kitten, Ernie.

Martinez will discuss and be signing copies of his book at Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Rd., June 11, 3 p.m. 456.9961.

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https://malibutimes.com
The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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