Cover image for Teeth of the dog
Teeth of the dog
Ciment, Jill, 1953-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers, [1998]

Physical Description:
216 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
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The author of the critically hailed Half a Life steps boldly into world-class literary territory with this tightly structured yet richly expansive literary thriller that will call to mind the work of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky.

Thomas, a renowned American anthropologist, his much younger wife Helene, and Finster, a young, culturally shipwrecked AMR (American mercantile riffraff), as he's known locally, enact a tense personal drama of love and tragedy against the much larger historical drama of the Melanesian island of Vanduu, a steaming crucible where East and West, fundamentalist piety and free market fire, decay and sterility augur the future of the world.
Helene has lured Thomas to Vanduu in the desperate hope that its tropical splendor can miraculously heal the fracture that has cleaved their lives: Thomas's health is failing, and Helene simply can't accept that she might lose him. Unable to cope with the gulf of loneliness that his illness has opened between them, Helene finds herself growing more and more desperate as they tour this lush, clamorous paradise that turns out to be no paradise at all. And then Finster appears--young, louche, popping up everywhere Thomas and Helene happen to be, dogging Helene like a lovesick puppy. When a tragic mishap caused by their dance of three accidentally takes the life of a Vanduuan child, Helene, separated from both men, becomes a fugitive left to fend for herself on this troubled, surreal, inexplicably foreign speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
With a distilled emotional power and prose so tactile you can feel the eroticism and heat on every page, this riveting tale enacts large themes--the inevitable consequences of the hegemony of the American dream, the inexorable loss of a deep, adult love compared to the hopped-up sex-for-sale enticements Finster offers in its place, and a glimpse into what progress, with its spiraling allurements, has truly forfeited.

Author Notes

Jill Ciment is the author of Half a Life, The Law of Falling Bodies, and Small Claims. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Foundation for the Arts and teaches at Columbia University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When Thomas and Helene Strauss arrive in Vanduu, Adam Finster senses that there's something unusual about the couple. He's right: Thomas is a former professor, Helene is a former stripper 30 years his junior, and they've come to Vanduu to avoid the impending crisis of Thomas' cancer. They've come to the wrong place. Impoverished and wracked by ethnic clashes, Vanduu is poor comfort for people stalked by unfulfilled desire, and Thomas' illness seems to expand in the heat. Skillful, vivid, and spare, Teeth of the Dog recalls Richard Dooling's White Man's Grave (1994). The incongruity of Americans searching for personal peace in a chaotic Third World country--where misery comes cheap and Spam is always on the menu--serves up both comedy and tragedy. A significant weakness lies in Ciment's apparent lack of judgment about her characters: What are we to make of Helene's continuing self-absorption? Why does her rescuer, the only person of integrity in Vanduu, get such short shrift? But this weakness pales next to the book's strength: Ciment, like E. M. Forster, has a special understanding of the limits of human communication. --Lee Reilly

Publisher's Weekly Review

Ciment's (Half a Life) multilayered novel is a taut, intelligent literary thriller in which character and fate, and a yawning chasm of cultural differences, unite to cause tragedy. Distinguished anthropologist Thomas Strauss and his substantially younger wife, Helene, do not find much paradise in paradise, the Melanesian island of Vanduu. What they do find is a complex, frequently paradoxical culture where religious betel addicts have crimson-colored teeth, Rambo is available in Hindi and hotels all offer air-conditioning but not necessarily electricity. Also on Vanduu is Finster, a young, stoned-out American opportunist who, functioning as Miss Lonelyhearts of Oceania, imports cheap Woolworth perfume to sell to the Vanduuans as the ultimate aphrodisiac. With Thomas dying of prostate cancer, Helene loving him but yearning for physical attention and Finster wanting someone‘anyone‘Ciment creates a situation ripe for disaster. Increasingly menacing events occur: Thomas is stoned by villagers after he accidentally kills a child, and Helene finds herself in a run-for-your-life situation. Unfortunately for her, she learns that her presumed refuge, the U.S. consulate, is a virtual closed door: with Marcos no longer controlling the Philippines, Vanduu is the U.S.'s proposed new strategic ally in the Pacific, and placating the islanders takes precedence over Helene's safety. Ciment uses the island's physical isolation to reflect her characters' emotional insularity and to emphasize their role as outsiders in a dangerous atmosphere. When Helene, in mounting panic, turns to Finster for rescue, drink, drugs and sex complicate their plans. This ultimately sad and knowing tour of human frailty will serve to secure Ciment's reputation for intelligent themes and uncompromising prose. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Thomas, an anthropologist in failing health, and his much younger wife, Helene, arrive on the imaginary Melanesian island of Vanduu in search of a vacation. They meet up with Adam Finster, known locally as an AMR (American Mercantile Riffraff), who spends his days smoking dope and selling aphrodisiacs to the native population. When Thomas's car hits and kills a Muslim girl, Helene is forced to run from officials of both the Vanduu and American governments, both of whom are eager to question her about the accident. Helene first turns to lovestruck Finster for help, but he is determined to persuade her to stay on Vanduu with him. Ciment (The Law of Falling Bodies, LJ 2/15/93) is good on the relationship between Thomas and Helene, but Finster is unconvincing and ultimately tangential to the plot. The publisher is comparing this novel to the works of Graham Greene and Paul Bowles, but it lacks the intensity of the former and the well-evoked settings of the latter. For large fiction collections.‘Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Vatu Chalets were a half dozen plywood cabins scattered along a path through the jungle.  As soon as they swung into the parking lot and Helene killed the engine, Finster tried to catch her eye.  He thought if he could just get her to look at him, he'd be able to glean whether or not their kiss had the same lingering effect on her as it had on him, but Helene seemed to be looking at everything in the known universe except Finster--the A-frame stilt lobby, the swarms of gnats, the pregnant goat eating a Pringle box out of a garbage can, Thomas's hawklike profile in the last spokes of daylight.  It hardly mattered; just being in her presence filled him with a heady surge of hope.          They started up the steep steps to the lobby. Finster noticed that Helene firmly took hold of Thomas's elbow.  The gesture was protective, almost nurselike, and he could see it bothered Thomas.  He was a step or two below them.  From this angle, he could just make out a hint of Helene's upper thighs under the fringe of her cutoffs, and they were perfect.  Once again, he couldn't imagine what she was doing with this old man.          When they opened the lobby doors, the teenage concierge was squatting on the floor, preparing a wad of betel.  He managed to pop it into his mouth before Finster ordered him to the front desk and began berating him for not renting his friends a chalet.  Actually, Finster liked the boy (they'd shared a joint earlier that afternoon), but he wanted to impress Helene with his worldly authority, his American can-do.          After the concierge sullenly shuffled off to find some fresh linen, Finster suggested that Helene and Thomas go to their chalet, relax, and take a shower.  He said he'd be back in an hour with a feast for all three of them.  They didn't argue.  They looked grateful.  They were standing under the lobby's listless ceiling fan, and though Finster couldn't quite put his finger on it, there was something sad about them.         Around eight he swung by Helene and Thomas's cabin.  They were fully dressed, supine on the bed: Thomas was asleep, Helene was staring at the ceiling, and once again, Finster had the ill-defined sense that something was amiss in their relationship.  Though Helene gently stirred Thomas awake, Finster intuited a frayed tension under her seemingly attentive veneer.          He loped beside her all the way to the gazebo.          "Quite a feast," Thomas said, peeling open the screen door.          In the center of the gazebo sat a low round table laden with food--slabs of fried Spam, corn beef hash, a plate of taro mash the consistency of rabbit glue, and a big bowl of Top Ramen noodles.          "I told the woman not to serve Spam," Finster said. "I told her not to serve tinned anything."          "It's fine Finster, really," Thomas said.  "It looks delicious."  He sat down on a throw of pillows, Helene sat down next to him, and Finster wedged himself in beside her.          "I'd stick with the noodle soup," Finster told Helene. He ladled out a bowl for her, carefully skimming off the amoeba-shaped globules of fat.  Then he fixed one for Thomas and himself as well.  "So, did you guys come to see the caves or the psychosurgeries?"          "The caves," Helene said.          Finster smiled.  "They're awesome. They look like . . ."  He could barely remember what they looked like: He hadn't been there in years.  "They look like . . . like a movie set, only they're real."  He couldn't believe how idiotic he sounded, more like the San Fernando Valley boy he once was than the Gauguin figure he hoped Helene perceived him to be: He knew he should stop smoking so much pot.  "I'd love to show them to you," he said.  "Unfortunately, I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I could take you there on Sunday."          "Thanks, Finster but I'm sure we can manage," Thomas said.          "Hey, Tom, trust me, you need a guide.  You can't just wander around the caves by yourselves.  They're filled with live shells.  The caves were an ammo dump during the war.  At least once every couple of years some Japanese honeymooners go up in a puff." "Must put a damper on tourism."          "Actually, it gives the caves a romantic charge."          Thomas put down his soup.  He'd barely touched it.  "Do they still perform psychosurgeries?"          "To be honest, I've never seen one.  But my customers swear by them."          "Customers for what?" Helene asked.          "For this."  Finster dug into the pocket of his aloha shirt and pulled out a vial.  He set it down gingerly on Helene's plate, as one might serve a dessert truffle.  "Smell it."          "Am I going to get high or something?"          "Just smell it."          Helene glanced at Thomas, then uncapped the vial and waved it under her nose. "Oh my God, it's like . . . like essence of Woolworth."  She closed her eyes and sniffed again.  "I'm having a Proustian experience. I'm back in aisle six, between the Whitman samplers and the hair spray, and my whole childhood is unfolding before me.  How did you bottle this?  Why  did you bottle it?"          "It's perfume," he said defensively.  "With pheromones.  It's a sexual attractant, like an aphrodisiac.  I didn't come up with the scent, I just import the stuff.  Among other things," he added.          "It has human pheromones in it?" Thomas asked.          "Actually, they're pig pheromones, but hey, it's a pig culture."          "And the locals believe it works?"          "Big time.  And they  really like the scent.  They  think of it as some kind of American love potion," he said, staring at Helene.  But she wasn't listening.  She seemed to have abruptly lost interest in the whole conversation, and he wondered why.          "How do they even know about it?" Thomas asked.          "I advertise in the local rags, and in Guns and Ammo.  Guns and Ammo  has a whopping circulation in these islands."  He turned to Helene.  "You can come with me tomorrow on my delivery rounds if you want.  My customers are pretty interesting, and to say the least, it's off the beaten track."          Thomas shook his head and smiled.  "So you're an entrepreneurial Malinowski of a sort."          "Malino-who?"          "Bronislaw Malinowski.  He was an anthropologist who wrote a book about Melanesia called The Sexual Life of Savages."          "Like the title," Finster said, grinning.  He helped himself to one of Thomas's cigarettes, lit it, then tried to catch Helene's eye again, but it was hopeless.  "Actually, I see myself more in Conradian terms. A Kurtz without the horror, the horror hypocrisy." Excerpted from Teeth of the Dog by Jill Ciment All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.