Ritter, Erika: The Hidden Life of Humans

Ritter, Erika
The Hidden Life of Humans
Key Porter Books, 1997

First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer 1999
Review by: Kerry Riley

Have you ever gotten the impression, when caught in the glare of their inscrutable, animalian gaze, that your cat/dog/gerbil thinks you’re an idiot? If so, there’s nothing in Erika Ritter’s often hilarious debut novel, The Hidden Life of Humans, to give you much comfort.

Murphy, a large, unprepossessing mutt, of indeterminate heritage, and hearty appetites, is the co-narrator of the story. He shares the duty with Dana Jaeger, a 40-something career-girl whose been stuck babysitting him for an old boyfriend. They met over Dana’s landlord’s lawnmower–Murphy ate it.

Murphy’s cool yellow eyes, reveal few of his thoughts, but his prose soon makes it clear that he’s not your average, syncophantic, approval-seeking type of dog. As Dana describes him, in a fit of exasperation at his judgmental stare, he’s “a sadistic, clairvoyant in a fur suit.” His assessment of many of the humans around him, is hardly flattering, and in his secret dreams, he fantasizes of setting all his brethren free.

Dana, on the other hand, is an aging, technically single, female boomer, suffering from that scourge of her generation–arrested adolescence.

Murphy arrives just as Dana is heading into a rough spell–let’s call it a crisis. Teetering on the brink of mid-life, she’s finding that behaviour once beguiling and cute now just seems silly, and her cherished personal freedom is starting to feel a lot like loneliness. Her career as a freelance writer is in the dumps–she’s writing scripts for a dog. Married lovers walk out of her life with mechanical regularity, and her best friend ex-husband, dying of aids, is about to leave her permanently. Ambivalently hopeful ideas about her relationship with Murphy’s owner prompt her to volunteer to babysit, but “Jerry” may be about to marry someone else. The coup de grace, so to speak, is an unexpected, disturbing meeting with a long-lost, look-alike college friend, whom Dana had always considered some sort of “better self.” Grace Goldberg is now a brain-addled street-hag.

Navigating this treacherous terrain together, both Dana and Murphy learn a lot about trust, intimacy, loyalty, letting go, and coming back.

Her past and current work as a CBC radio journalist and award-winning playwright, have made “Erika Ritter” a name familiar to most Canadians. Ms. Ritter possesses an exuberant, ironic sense of humour, much in evidence in this her first book, and a particular aptitude for the well-turned simile. For example, she describes the self-satisfied urban dwellings of trendy cohorts, as “prosperous houses of brick and stone, each with a smooth lawn sloping up to the front door, like a napkin tucked under a well-fed chin.” Although its tone wobbles occasionally, flirting with a “deepness” out of synch with its over-all hip hilarity, the book is great entertainment. A very good laugh!