[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
One year after writing an entire book about his five house cats, Lloyd Alexander co-authored Park Avenue Vet, the 1962 memoir of Dr. Louis J. Camuti. Fondly remembered as the first vet to devote his practice exclusively to cats, Camuti dealt with fussy socialites, befriended nearly every cat he met, and learned how to respond with patience and diplomacy to the quirks of their eccentric owners.
Camuti’s story is punctuated by felines from beginning to end. He praises the childhood cat who helped him recover from typhoid fever, he memorializes the cat who befriended him while he served in the cavalry during World War I, and he describes the awkwardness of his first solo operation—the spaying of his fiancee’s pet. Camuti also recalls his first house call, when in a clumsy attempt to euthanize a St. Bernard he only wound up chloroforming himself.
Although Camuti ponders cat psychology and offers a brief taxonomy of feline body language, his anecdotes about their owners are often the funniest: the fellow who believed his cat became electrified during thunderstorms; the woman who tried to breed her cats with rabbits; and my favorite Camuti patient of all:
She was past middle age, well dressed, carrying a small cardboard box.
“It’s about my dog,” she said, sitting down nervously beside my desk.
“I live alone,” she went on, naming an excellent apartment house, “and he’s my only companion.”
I asked whether she had brought the dog with her.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “he’s right here.”
She unknotted the string around the box. I looked inside and saw a small dog, a Boston terrier. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. There couldn’t have been. The dog was made of pâpier-maché.
“Well,” I said, wondering what her answer would be, “what seems to be the trouble?”
“The trouble?” she said indignantly. “You’re a veterinarian. Can’t you see for yourself?”
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” I said.
“The trouble,” she said, “is ticks.”
With only light evidence of Alexander’s assistance, Camuti tells poignant stories about death and denial, writes disapprovingly of most of his celebrity clients, and documents the lengths to which owners will go for their animals—such as the woman who accumulated so much Japanese crab meat for her finicky Siamese that she aroused official suspicion during World War II. Though only 184 pages, Park Avenue Vet is an fine and insightful collection of veterinary exempla, not because Alexander and Camuti demystify the unknowable ways of the feline but because of the book’s implicit premise: that the best stories about cats tend to say something true about people.