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Zoology by Ben Dolnick

May 21, 2011

I discovered Zoology by Ben Dolnick while I was at the library grabbing my next book club book. I perused the fiction section, read the backs of a few books, and thought that this novel looked pretty good.

Ben Dolnick’s main character is Henry, a recent college flunk out who takes up his brother on his offer to live with him and his girlfriend in New York City for the summer. The novel is a coming of age story and Henry is a lovable, awkward hero.

He gets a job working at the Central Park Zoo, which is where some of the best scenes, dialogs, and events in the novel happen. Henry’s relationship with the animals in the zoo isn’t cheesy, but it’s clear that Dolnick wants us to understand Henry really only lets his guard down when he’s hanging out with the pigs or the goats, and that’s he more at ease with himself when surrounded by animals than with people.

Of course the novel isn’t just about Newman the goat – there’s a girl, of course. Her name is Margaret and boy is she a tease. Poor Henry is drooling over her all summer and she is just dragging him around like he’s a hopeless puppy. Obviously Henry isn’t the smoothest around her and there are some scenes where you’re just begging poor Henry to stop making a fool of himself.

Of course there’s not just Newman and Margaret – there’s family drama, of course. Henry’s living with his brother and his unlikeable girlfriend, his parents are having some issues, and there’s a random uncle thrown in for good measure. Alongside unrequited love, questioning his college future, and scooping pig poop all day, Dolnick now adds changing family relationships, nasty arguments, and awkward silences to the challenges of Henry’s summer.

Henry is clumsy and self-conscious, but he’s a great hero because we’ve all been Henry at some point. This is an entertaining story set against the backdrop of a great city, focusing on a character who can be lovable, embarrassing, hilariously funny, and dim witted all in the same paragraph. What’s not to like?

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