Book Review: The Last Howlelujah, by William B. Miller
–Reviewed by Courtney Wennerstrom, aapp Contributing Editor
I’ve always believed that if anything on earth is powerful enough to unite us during these divisive political times, it is our mutual love of companion animals. Episcopal Priest, bar-owner, talented story-teller, fundraiser, cocktail and culinary connoisseur, and dog aficionado, William B. Miller, agrees: “It matters not whether you are a Democat or a Repawlican–dogs can bring us together and help us overcome our differences”. In this spirit of benevolence and interconnectedness, The Last Howlelujah reveals how one man transformed his love for a very beloved canine into a larger movement to make the world a kinder, more beautiful place for all of us. It also invites and inspires us to follow in their paw prints.
You do not have to be a Christian to appreciate this wild romp, not only because a Priest who has transformed his garage into a Tiki Bar–and who fervently loves his dogs–is a highly approachable character, but because his concept of spirituality is primarily based on DOG. When Miller’s beloved terrier mix, Nawiliwili Nelson–or Wili–is diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and given 3-months to live, he is understandably devastated. Wili defies the odds, however, and eight months later, Miller packs himself and his “one-in-a-million” pooch into a Honda Civic for a bucket-list adventure worth writing about. The bonded pair travel 5,000 zigzagged miles, from New Orleans to Las Vegas, to savor delicious food, see old and make new friends, and most importantly, to enjoy the precious little time they have left together. During frequent stops along their journey, William delivers sermons and Wili interacts with a coterie of adoring fans who shower him with affection and treats. Ultimately, William and Wili raise $14,000 for shelter animals in need.
Throughout this hilarious, relatable book, Miller artfully lays out his dogma–a thoughtful ideology grounded in the profound conviction that dogs are the embodiment of the divine, and the divine, at its core, is love. Because they are connected to nature, pleasure, innocence, beauty, and intimacy, they bring us closer to our own spirituality. He offers tail after tale of redemption, showing over and over how the human-animal bond can lift us up out of the ashes: healing us from pain, despair, trauma, and crushing hardship. By approaching life with a dog’s sense of awe and wonder, Miller’s spiritual philosophy is both complex and ridiculously simple: love everyone well, including yourself, and the treats will follow.
Peppered with literary and philosophical allusions, this tightly-woven tour-de-force offers mesmerizing historical and spiritual lessons at every turn. Music is a particular focus for Miller. While Wili is busy eating barbeque or sniffing out new landscapes, his human companion invests significant energy getting to know the people and towns he visits. Lubbock, Texas, for instance, we come to learn, has had an enormous influence on the history of music, producing legends such as Buddy Holly, Terry Allen, Tanya Tucker, and Natalie Maines from the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks). We also discover that Lubbock has a surprising connection to Charles Darwin, who greatly influenced its founding father, Sir John Lubbock–also a philanthropist, biologist, politician, and anthropologist. Miller’s talent for seamlessly weaving history into his stories creates a layered effect of insight and wit. He jokes that while he once saw a bumper sticker declaring that “Happiness is Lubbock in your rear-view mirror”: but for him, it is a place “steeped in metaphysical mysteries”– a whimsical perspective gained from channeling Wili. He is right to appreciate the town most people cannot wait to leave behind, as its very good people help him raise $2,300 for Four-Legged Friends rescue.
Practicing radical acceptance, Miller is–and asks his readers to be–exceptionally grateful, gracious, empathetic, passionate, inquisitive, and charitable. Instead of building walls, he believes that the best communities are built out of companionship, mutual respect, and admiration. Miller’s overarching message is that spiritual people–like the canines they love–break down barriers; seek authenticity; help whomever needs it, whenever and wherever they can; and find goodness everywhere they go. As someone who lives in New Orleans, part of that goodness for Miller comes from culinary exploration. He and Wili literally eat their way through this book. In their search for godliness, the material world provides many delights.
On a personal note, William is a close friend of my sister, Ashley, who is a wonderful mamma to my pitbull-mix nephew, Jughead. Early in his tail, Miller takes her to meet a dog he is hoping to adopt because she is the person he trusts “most to judge every character with conviction and every canine with compassion”. He goes on to describe Ashley’s extraordinary relationship with Herman Wallace–a black man who spent 41 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. He nails my sister’s character–calling her “a crusader of the marginalized”–so I can attest to his razor-sharp accuracy as both a narrator and an observer. But more significantly, Miller lingers over Ashley’s relationship with Wallace for a reason: to meaningfully connect racism and breed specific legislation and critique the origins of systemic oppression. Here and elsewhere, he implies that the biggest challenges humans face–from climate change and racial injustice, to rampant poverty and religious and political upheaval–can all be solved by listening to and loving each other; and of course, by turning to DOG in all things.
Genre: Part memoir, part historical exploration, part sermon, all homage to canines.
Who should read this book: literally anyone who loves dogs or stories about dogs; humans who enjoy history, music, and surprising connections between small towns in Texas and Charles Darwin.
Who should not read this book: anyone who hates intentionally-bad puns, dogs, or crying over dogs– as this can elicit some hearty tears.
The takeaway: Dogs are in constant communion with the divine; they bring out the best parts of humanity; and ought to be emulated in their exuberance, affection, gratitude, loyalty, and adventurousness.
Order here for a signed copy of The Last Howlelujah: Tails from the Trail