I am the last person in America to have heard of Walter the Farting Dog. My cousin is the next-to-last, and she heard about Walter from her son, who came home from kindergarten one day recently and actually told her for a change what he had done at school. They had had story time, he said, and teacher had read them a funny book about a farting dog.
“A what?” said my cousin. While neither of us is exactly a lace-encrusted Victorian holdover, we shared a grandmother who could not bring herself to mention the name of any bodily function whatsoever and therefore spent our childhoods being ordered to wash our hands before long car journeys and church. Our more up-market great-aunt used routinely to inquire of us as seven-year-olds whether our noses needed powdering. None of this particularly mystified us; it was how people talked in the South. We assumed it was how all people talked, everywhere.
“A farting dog,” my cousin’s son repeated through a mouthful of sandwich. Thinking about it, he started to laugh again, spraying the table with crumbs.
My cousin, however, was not as amused as she might have been, and with her husband’s help she tried to procure a copy of this book in order that they might see for themselves just how funny it was, and then perhaps have a word with Teacher about it. The school library didn’t have a copy; their local branch library didn’t have a copy; the central library didn’t have a copy. In the end, they found an obscure branch all the way across town which could, just possibly, obtain the book for them via inter-library loan.
At last they held a copy in their hands. Here is a plot summary:
1. Some kids bring home a dog from the pound.
2. You know the title, so already you know what’s wrong with the dog.
3. Dad wants to get rid of the dog.
4. The very night before the dog goes back to the pound, some burglars break into the house.
5. The dog overpowers them, to put it with nose-powdering delicacy.
6. Hooray, we love Walter, Walter can stay, the end.
Hearing about this book, I was intrigued. It was not necessarily that I was surprised by anything about my cousins’ story, because when I was a public-school teacher myself, I worked hard at the art of being surprised by nothing, and then when my own children went to school, as they briefly did, I found I had to work at it all over again. I still remember the first chapter book my oldest daughter ever read: it was about a cat afraid to walk through a cat flap. Eleven chapters of “Do I? Don’t I?”—characteristic for a cat, but as adventures go rather tiresome, I would have thought—enlivened only by the cat’s doing, in Chapter Nine, what cats are wont to do on the floor when the exit is barred to them. My daughter’s teacher had given it to her, and she read it with evident pleasure, but I remember glancing over her shoulder at it and thinking, “This is what there is to read?”
So it was not that I was shocked, exactly, to learn of the existence of a children’s book about a farting dog—merely interested, you understand. I looked it up on Amazon, and there it was, not only a book about Walter, but a series: Walter at a yard sale, Walter on the beach, Walter on a cruise. As far as I know, there’s not yet an installment featuring Walter on a crowded elevator stuck at the thirty-ninth floor, but that can’t be far behind.
There’s even a stuffed toy: “Walter the Farting Dog from the Katzwinkle and Murray childrens book. Just squeeze Walter and he will make numerous farting sounds. Measures over 8 inches in length. A Great gift for any occasion. Watch their reaction when they give Walter a squeeze.”
I’m trying to think on what occasion I might give a stuffed Walter—”numerous farting sounds?”—as a gift. I’m also thinking of the stuff we used to see on the shelves at Stuckey’s, fake vomit, toilet ashtrays, tasteful table-top-sized hillbilly outhouses with a little half-dressed hillbilly man who squirted you if you opened the door, and that what my mother always said was, “You don’t need those awful things.”
But then, we must be the kind of people to whom the approximately 104 customer reviews, of a total 171, are addressed when they begin, “If you are not an open-minded person, you won’t like this book.” Others merely exhort the reader to “Lighten up!!!” I lost count of the number of reviews entitled “What a Gas,” as well as the number of adults who report that they “laughed till I peed my pants.” One city librarian boasts of buying the book to shelve over the objections of—or maybe under the radar of—his supervisor. At least five teachers bought it for the express purpose of reading it to their classes; one wound up reading it to her entire school. Another man bought it to bring cheer to the residents of his father’s nursing home. Vast numbers of uncles seem to be buying this book to give to nieces and nephews. Several mothers admit to disliking the book intensely themselves, but praise it nevertheless as the first, if not the only book their children have been willing to read. Before Walter, books were boring, &c. One hundred thirty-six reviews, at a rough estimate, contain the sentence, “Children think bodily functions are funny,” or some variation thereof.
About six people give the book poor reviews, using words like “shame,” and “politeness,” and “poor taste,” but are swiftly shouted down by the rest as repressive nitwits. One woman—why do I think this reviewer is a woman?—deplores the fact that the book conveys the message that “rescued” animals are “disposable.” About six more people point out that Walter the Farting Dog, in both concept and plot, is almost virtually identical to another series of books about a dog with halitosis—which apparently are much, much funnier and not offensive in the least.
In the end, my cousin and her husband met with the teacher, who was forced to admit, albeit reluctantly, that she had made an “error of judgment” in choosing this book to read to the kindergarten. There are probably forty-five different conclusions which one might draw from all this, but I think I’m going to go read Edith and Mr. Bear again instead.