THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE
By David Wroblewski. Ecco. 576 pages. $25.95. ***1/2
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is one of those novels that no reviewer can approach objectively, so in the interests of full disclosure, a confession is in order:
I've always been a cat person.
At last count, eight of them had taken up residence at Casa Bailey. I no sooner sit down than one shows up to give me the gimlet eye, serene and disdainful from its perch across the room.
Which made reading David Wroblewski's debut novel a little disconcerting. For “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is a paean to our canine companions, and your answer to that timeless human question – are you a dog- or a cat-person? – cannot help coloring your response to the story.
For three generations, the Sawtelle clan has been selectively breeding dogs to produce an evolutionary leap forward in the species. By the time Edgar – a mute boy with an intuitive understanding of dogs – is born, the experiment may well have succeeded. “Sawtelle dogs,” as the breed is known, are remarkable not only for their devotion and intelligence, but for their almost human capacity for emotion.
Wroblewski's evocation of this enhanced canine consciousness produces his best writing, as when Almondine, Edgar's lifelong companion, perceives aging as the slow accumulation of the time that “lived inside you. You are time, you breathe time,” she thinks, watching a newborn litter careen around the yard. “The pups had so little time inside them they barely stayed attached to the ground.”
The image is striking and fresh, true and wise – and so, like Edgar, we come to love the Sawtelle dogs, to cherish our time with them. The novel is gripping when Wroblewski lets us have that time – when the dogs join Edgar in his flight through the Chequamegon wilderness, or when they teach a jilted, self-pitying young man named Henry Lamb what it really means to love. In these moments, Wroblewski steers clear of the sentimentality that often mars writing about dogs, allowing a stoic wisdom to emerge instead.
This sure touch falters when he turns to plot – when he whips up a waterspout on Lake Superior to goose the story forward, or when Edgar's murderous uncle Claude shows up. As the story progresses, the significance of Claude's name becomes clear: It suggests Claudius, the villainous uncle of Shakespeare's “Hamlet.” Once we make the connection, other elements of the story spring into unflattering focus: Edgar's mother Trudy is Gertrude, Hamlet's adulterous mother; the vet, Papineau, his groveling counselor, Polonius. Even the mysterious stray that haunts the surrounding woods – Edgar calls him Forte – echoes Hamlet: He's Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who delivers the play's final lines.
These over-clever parallels – Look, Ma, Hamlet with dogs! – too often undermine Wroblewski's genuine and considerable gifts. Yet it's a measure of those gifts that I still found myself thinking: Who cares if I'm a cat lover?
I want a Sawtelle dog.
Dale Bailey teaches English at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory.
*= poor; **= fair; ***= good; ****= excellent