Marley did his best to live down to his reputation.
The 97-pound Labrador retriever crashed through screen doors with alarming regularity. He went berserk during thunderstorms, destroying everything in his path. He stole food off the dinner table, slobbered incessantly, drank from the toilet bowl, and ate bath towels, sponges, socks, used tissues, plastic toys, furniture, speaker covers, paychecks, even an expensive gold necklace.
He was incorrigible. And utterly lovable.
In a funny and poignant memoir, "Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World's Worst Dog," first-time author John Grogan remembers his late pooch as an irrepressible force of nature and as a faithful companion who taught his human masters a thing or two about loyalty and unconditional love.
Released in October, "Marley" has quickly and quite unexpectedly become top dog in the publishing world. With 650,000 copies already in print, the book sits atop two best-seller lists, ahead of offerings from such heavyweights as David McCullough, Frank McCourt and Joan Didion.
No one is more surprised than the author himself.
"I was pretty confident it was going to do pretty well, but I had no idea it was going to jump to the top of the best-seller list," says Grogan, 48, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Marley died two years ago and Grogan and his family have a new dog now, another yellow Lab named Gracie, who bounds into the author's cozy living room and promptly jumps on a visitor, licking furiously.
"Gracie, down!" Grogan commands. "Settle down. She's going to knock your tape recorder off. She's actually the good one — she's so much easier than Marley was. She'll calm down in a couple minutes."
Gracie does eventually settle down — after a barking fit — and Grogan tries gamely to explain the success of his debut book.
"There's millions of people who clearly understand that a pet is a pet ... and yet still find themselves really falling in love with these animals," says Grogan, a slender man with salt-and-pepper hair and beard. "I think I gave voice to that phenomenon."
'Young and wired'
Grogan's story begins in the early 1990s as he and his new bride, Jenny, buy Marley from a backyard breeder. The breeder avoids questions about Marley's father and offers the puppy at a discount — in retrospect, a clear sign of trouble ahead.
The puppy grew quickly, along with his capacity for mischief.
"Marley strolled like a runaway locomotive strolls," Grogan writes. "(He) was young and wired, with the attention span of algae and the volatility of nitroglycerine."
Marley interrupts sex. He wriggles out of a moving car. He wreaks havoc at a snooty restaurant in Boca Raton, Fla. He gets kicked out of obedience school. He shows amazing skill as an escape artist, literally licking his way out of a locked cage.
Grogan writes of a family friend who had foolishly agreed to care for Marley while he and his wife vacationed in Ireland. When the couple returned home three weeks later, the beleaguered sitter had the "faraway gaze of a shell-shocked soldier after a particularly unrelenting battle."
Part of the book's success might stem from the fact that it is more than the sum of its funny anecdotes. The Grogan family lived quite an eventful life in the 13 years that Marley was with them, and the dog figures in several emotionally gripping episodes that provide insight into why his masters chose to put up with him.
When Jenny suffers a miscarriage, Marley stands at quiet attention, tail between his legs, as she buries her face in his furry neck and sobs. When a young neighbor is stabbed at random in the street, Marley makes like a guard dog until police arrive.
'Tuesdays With Marley'
As Marley reaches old age and decrepitude, Grogan's story builds to an inevitable, wrenching climax. Anybody who has ever had to put a beloved pet to sleep will instantly recognize the trauma and grief the author describes. Not for nothing did William Morrow publisher Lisa Gallagher dub the book "Tuesdays With Marley."
Grogan's editor, Mauro DiPreta, says he was initially skeptical of the book's premise. Then he read it and sobbed "like a girl."
"What resonates to me is that it deals with these universal themes of love and loyalty and commitment. The puppy on the cover hooks you, but ultimately ... it's not really about a dog, it's about these other things that are important," DiPreta says.
At the same time, he says, Grogan writes in a way "that's not saccharine and sentimental."
Grogan had always gotten big laughs at dinner parties when he told Marley stories and occasionally wrote about the dog's exploits in newspaper columns, and it dawned on him that there might be enough material for a book. He had planned to assemble a collection of essays on life with Marley, but that changed when he wrote a column about the dog's death. Some 800 readers called and e-mailed, the biggest response Grogan had ever gotten from one of his columns.
He knew he had touched a nerve.
"That's when I realized that there's a bigger story here ... (about) how families bring these animals into their homes, and try to shape the animals to their will. But at the same time, the animals are shaping us a little bit and helping turn us into the people we become," says Grogan, whose house, a two-story Colonial on a wooded hillside, is clean and tidy but displays the telltale signs of dog ownership: toys, treats and shed hair.
Grogan, who grew up in Michigan, spent most of the 1990s as a reporter and columnist for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. He moved to Pennsylvania in 1999 to take a job as editor of a gardening magazine, then landed at the Inquirer in 2002.
The success of "Marley & Me" has his publisher asking for more. The columnist is planning another memoir, this one about growing up in an Irish-Catholic household.
"It's not," Grogan says, "going to be a dog book."