Are White German Shepherds good Dogs
THE WHITE GERMAN SHEPHERD By Vicki Hearne. 205 pp. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press. $16.95.
IT would be pleasant to report that in this first novel Vicki Hearne has resurrected the dog story. She invokes a popular tradition, represented best for Americans by Jack London's ''Call of the Wild'' (1903), Albert Payson Terhune's ''Lad: A Dog'' (1919) and Jim Kjelgaard's ''Big Red'' (1945). As her narrator, Diane Brannigan, would have it, ''there has to be something in the world that matters, and that's what a dog story is about.''
But ''The White German Shepherd'' unfolds at a fatal remove from those originals, and Diane knows it. She and her taciturn partner, Sam, have been commissioned by an old-time Hollywood trainer to find and prepare a white German shepherd for a remake of ''The Call of the Wild.'' Unfortunately, the old-time trainer is now a lush; white German shepherds, as everyone in the world of this book knows, are ''trash, every single one of them. No substance, no heart, no presence''; and though Diane and Sam finally find the dog they need, a canine redeemer named Jouster, for Diane their story belongs to the past, ''the good old days . . . when citizenship, good or bad, wasn't on the run.''
She is fighting a moral battle, and her author, hoping against hope, fights it with her. A former professional animal trainer, Vicki Hearne commented in her last book, the critically acclaimed ''Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name'' (1986), that dog stories ''have changed as radically as the stories about Pit Bulls . . . horror stories.'' So what's a good dog to do?
At the very least, a good dog should stay away from the likes of Diane Brannigan. She's a phony, and as Vicki Hearne herself would say, you can't lie to a dog. The story Diane is really telling is not Jouster's story, but the story of how Diane more or less deliberately levers her current lover - the disillusioned 60's New Journalist Luke Zeller - out of her bed and brings Sam in. She has been on constructively Platonic terms with her partner for some time when Luke arrives to disturb the peace at Neverland Kennel. True, Sam is grieving for a dog he brought back unharmed from the war in Vietnam, only to have Zeus die at home; but his all-seeing affinity for dogs keeps him from giving up on life, and eventually makes a meeting of the minds - and bodies - possible. As Diane comments: ''We're all true visionaries in this business.''
Maybe so. Certainly there is no end to the miracles dogs perform in ''The White German Shepherd, '' and the best passages are those illustrating dogs' interactions with each other and with human beings: ''They were both Alpha males, and Homer would not forget, if Jouster broke any rules of chivalry, who had seniority, any more than Jouster would forget that seniority isn't everything, but they made their quest of each other and returned. Jouster stayed just behind Homer's shoulder, until they were close to me, and then he moved forward, to mark for me his awareness of our new friendship. Homer stayed close but didn't interfere.'' And again: ''Prince barked at the ceiling and probed my neck delicately but also hard, jabbing his nose precisely against my jawbone, urging celebration.''