The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs

By Dr. Nick Trout. Hyperion. $14.99.

Family, business and community fireworks are all at play throughout this Angell Animal Memorial Center surgeon’s first novel.

As you would assume, the focused figure is a veterinarian, Dr. Cyrus Mills, who returns to Eden Falls, a small rural Northern Vermont town and a failing veterinary practice he inherits from his late father, Dr. Robert Cobb, a town icon, after 14 years away. But Mills is confronted by one challenge after another, including a suspended veterinary license in South Carolina, the lack of a relationship with his father (he didn’t attend his father’s funeral), a staff veterinarian and office manager who were huge fans of his father and a quirky collection of clients with a set of bizarre challenges, both personal and physiological.

One of the best characterizations of that intense ire between Doris, the office manager, and Mills reads: “Who knows where her trail of frosty condensation ends and the toxic fog begins,” he says.

Heretofore, Mills has been a veterinary pathologist in Charleston, S.C., requiring little interaction with the public and no hands-on experience of basic veterinary procedures. He is accustomed to reading X-rays and lab reports, not the worried faces of pet owners. With all of these strikes against him, his plan is to come into town short-term, sell the practice and leave.

When his first client asks Mills to euthanize what appears to be a perfectly healthy golden retriever Frieda Fuzzypaws, he is reluctant. The owner has insufficient funds to pay for the procedure, leaves the dog with Mills and hustles out the door promising to return with the money. This sets off a mix master of incidents, forcing Mills to hide the dog in the practice while most of the town is on the lookout for it days later.

Mills’ father, known as the Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, provided food for these animals while they were waiting to be adopted, let alone paying for vaccines, worm, flea and tick treatments, leaving little doubt to why the practice is suffering financially. “Cobb was running it into the ground with kindness,” says Doc Lewis, the other staff veterinarian who becomes Mills’ confidante and professional sounding board.

Mills and his father are polar opposites when it comes to cultivating or even developing relationships. But Lewis begins to see Mills’ comfort zone slowly evolving in Eden Falls, saying, “I’m trying to make you see that there’s more to life than what you left behind. Oh, I know this practice is in big trouble and I know Eden Falls is a far cry from Charleston, but deep down I also know there’s a part of you that’s finally coming alive.”

With refreshing bluntness and candor, Lewis describes to Mills the sensitivity, warmth and cloak of protection his father provided him in the eyes of the community, which begins to open up the son’s eyes – and heart – too, “turning 14 years of misplaced anger into 14 years worth of grief.”

Trout’s emotionally powerful novel waxes philosophical, too: “They say there’s only one thing certain life and that’s death. I think they’re wrong. I think there are two. Okay, death, but also, regret. . . . the things you never said, the things you wish you’d never said. It’s not a question of if you will regret, it’s a question of when. Trouble is, for most of us, these two certainties – death and regret – come as a package deal, and by then it’s too late.”

There’s plenty of healing in this earthy delivery, from personal to patients, with lots of rich nourishment for real life, too.