If the title of Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ new book, Travels With Casey, evokes, like the whisper of a memory, the name of a classic book — John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley — that’s not an outright accident. Denizet-Lewis, a longtime writer for The New York Times Magazine who has written about bulldogs and ex-gay friends (with the latter piece due to become a James Franco movie), set out on an American adventure with his dog in tow, much like Steinbeck. But the stories in this book are true (and focused on the idea of dogs and dog culture in America), unlike Steinbeck’s, as Travels With Charley has been famously haunted by accusations of being more fiction than non.
In Travels With Casey, the impetus for a road trip around America in an RV is the strained relationship between Denizet-Lewis and his very cute dog, Casey, who is the book’s cover model. In a trip to the dog psychologist, the doctor suggests the fact that the writer’s feeling that “Casey doesn’t like me” stem from issues with his mother, and the pair will probably work it out in close quarters, through their road trip circling America.
A journalist to the core, Denizet-Lewis’ trip is chock-full of stops along the way with people who you could write a story about. There are plenty of professional dog people, whether it’s women doing dog yoga classes in Florida or a day with the elderly former dogcatcher of Marfa, Texas. Denizet-Lewis goes to Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California, where the dog whisperer can literally snap his fingers and an angry dog chills out. He meets homeless teens in the Seattle area whose dogs provide a form of love and protection in a world that is full of menace and threat.
Humans love dogs, and the dog memoir — whether it’s about a dog that changes the world, or saves someone’s life, or even does something that’s more adorable than impressive — has proven popular. Where Travels With Casey feels different is in the breadth of its explorations into people’s experiences with dogs. It’s all about love at the core, but from therapy dogs to people determined to make their dogs into YouTube stars, the book showcases the wide range of interactions between humans and their favorite animal. Denizet-Lewis has a generous, humanistic eye for subjects and characters, profiling across classes, backgrounds, and sexual orientations. As a road trip book, it gives a sense of the difference in landscape from the Northeast to the Southwest, and the terror that comes with driving a bulky RV up California’s famously winding Route 1.
The skein that starts the book — Denizet-Lewis’ relationship with Casey — stays in the background, mostly. It’s found in games of catch and when the writer lets the dog run around in the open land. As a reader, I didn’t find it the most page-turning concept to hang a book around, but the story ended in a place that was touching. Ultimately, the book has a sweetness at it’s core; that’s what makes it a different experience from Denizet-Lewis’ past work (like America Anonymous, a book about eight addicts and their addictions). It sheds some light on the love and affection that drives the relationships between humans and their dogs, and it’s a charming tour of America, on top of that. I will admit to being, well, a cat person — but Travels With Casey was still a fun read for me, chock-full of information that went down as easy as a piña colada on summer’s afternoon. It even taught me something about the intensity behind your average dog person.