Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Not Just Another Dog Story

I'm not usually a sucker for a dog story. I'll admit I had a lump in my throat at the end of Ole Yeller--but his family had the same name as mine--and I was in the fourth grade. From the beginning, though, Garth Stein's novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, narrated by Enzo--a dog--captured my fancy. This dog has an authentic, believable voice (although he does bemoan the fact that because of his long canine tongue, he can't effect an actual spoken voice.)

Stein's story of Denny Swift, a young man who aspires to drive race cars, while working on other people's expensive automobiles, gives a dog's eye view of Denny's early marriage, fatherhood, and grief. Enzo is no ordinary dog--or maybe he is. He manages to learn much from the television left on for company while his master is away. He watches racing footage with Denny. He even has his list of favorite actors (including at number five or six Peter Falk as Columbo). He is privy to private conversation, and he channels that sharp canine instinct, even senses the presence of disease long before it is diagnosed.

If the successful formula for a novel is the cause trouble for your characters and then watch them try to get themselves out of trouble, Stein succeeds. In fact, while listening to the audiobook on my way to and from work, I found myself in a dark, anxious mood one day, only to stop and realize I was fretting over Denny's situation, not my own. Another reason the book works so well is the blend of the serious plot line with the clever humor. Enzo resents the human acceptance that monkeys are our closest animal kin simply because they have thumbs.

As I've noted so many times, some books lend themselves well to audio--and this one did. The reader was pitch perfect. But heading off on a long car trip with my husband, who had not read the book, I opted to read the last few chapters in a real book. I still heard Enzo's voice.

Stein's arrangement of the plot is skillful as well, using the present as a frame for most of the tale as flashback, providing the reader with the sense of dramatic irony from a number of angles. Not ony do we know what the dog knows, but we know from the beginning that this story will inevitably end as all lovely, sad dog stories do--and then Stein throws us a curve.


Valerie Hartman said...

Great post. This novel was my first pleasure read after a long semester of assigned reading in December. LOVED the story, LOVED your review.

Linda H. said...

Ironic. I just gave that book to Stefan last night. My mother sent it for him. I hope to read it when he has read it.