Monday, October 12, 2009

Garth Stein and a dog's voice

Back in May, our 14-year-old Sheltie passed away. My wife and I were devastated by the loss. Bernie had been a central figure in our family, and our house, occupying space, much like a human. With Bernie gone, and our son on the west coast, the house seemed dreadfully empty.

Animals have the capacity to enhance the quality of our lives. Dogs in particular have an innate ability to be whatever it is that we need them to be for us. For those fortunate to have had, or who have a special canine, they provide an unconditional support to us that no human is capable, or self-sacrificing enough to render.

In Garth Stein’s latest novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, the story is narrated by a dog, who on the eve of his own death, looks back over his life, and takes you on a rewarding journey that will have you laughing, crying, and reflecting on those special dogs you’ve had the privilege of knowing.

Enzo, a yellow lab/Airedale mix, watches television, which his owner, Denny, leaves on for him when he’s at work. Enzo knows what is next for him. He’s seen it on TV, in a documentary about Mongolia—when he is finished living his life as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man. Enzo has always known that he’s different than other dogs, and he is quite sure that his soul, stuffed into a dog’s body, is very human.

Denny is Enzo’s owner. He is a race car driver, trying to claw his way up from the lower rungs of racing’s ladder. By day he works as a parts manager at a high-end repair shop for expensive foreign, mainly German automobiles. His real passion, however, is his racing.

When we first meet Enzo and his owner, Denny is soliciting sponsors to buy a seat in a Porsche 993 Cup Car, to race in Daytona, during the 24 Hours of Daytona race, which will be sponsored by Rolex. Denny ends up gaining the seat, and as life would have it, the weekend that he is racing is when his wife, Eve, who entered Denny and Enzo’s lives earlier, gives birth to their daughter, Zoe.

Eve was seen by Enzo as an interloper at first, someone that would come between him and Denny. Initially, he was cautious in handing her his affection. Over the first year of their marriage, however, Enzo had warmed to Eve.

Eve had insisted on a natural childbirth, and as she is giving birth, Enzo hears her screams and realizes she is in pain bringing the new life into the world. As Eve lays in bed, nursing her newborn, Zoe, she asks for a minute with her baby; the midwives seek to shoo Enzo from the room, but Eve stops them and Enzo is puffed up with pride realizing he had a special dispensation with Eve that he had been unaware of. Eve reaches down and wiggles her fingers calling for Enzo. He bumps her hand with his snout, and Eve, still crying, and nursing little Zoe looks into Enzo’s eyes and asks him, “Will you promise to always protect her?” Enzo had found a place to begin with Eve.

Parents often drive wedges between themselves and their married children. Rather than accepting that their adult child has found someone that they want to spend their lives with, some parents spend inordinate energy in their state of overprotection doing their best to sabotage marriage and love for their child. Eve’s parents, dubbed “the evil twins” by Enzo, feel that Eve could have done much better than Denny.

Life takes on new meaning for Enzo, with Zoe around. For most of the first year, Eve stays home with the new baby. The apartment in Seattle is full of life, and noise, and action. Then Eve returns to work, mainly for the health insurance that their young family needs and Denny, working for a small employer, can’t pick up at his work.

At first, Enzo is lost, alone in the apartment, wandering from room to room. Denny begins leaving the TV on for him again, telling Enzo that he’s counting on him to “be responsible.” Of course, Enzo, in his narrator’s voice indicates, “I am responsible!”

Stein, clearly knowledgeable about the bond that exists between a dog and its owner, must also be a race fan. While I know little about racing, and tend not to care much about it as a sport, I found Stein’s tidbits about world class drivers like Ayrton Senna, Jackie Steward, Michael Shumacher, and the other drivers mentioned interesting, and I found racing to be an intriguing metaphor to use in telling this story about dogs and humans.

Dogs, at least one as intuitive as Enzo knows when bad things are about to happen—he smells something bad happening in Eve—the dog is always the first to know.

The Art of Racing in the Rain alas, is not a feel good story. Bad things happen to good people. The perfect cocoon of family that existed for Denny is sent into a spin, like a race car whose tires lose their grip on wet pavement. Is Denny a skilled enough driver to know how to steer out this spin, or will he ultimately crash?

I’m not sure if this book would have been as interesting if Stein hadn’t have employed Enzo as his voice in telling the story. Ultimately, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a book about the triumph of the human spirit, as it overcomes the misdeeds and calculations of other humans, acting in their own self-interest, claiming to want what’s best, but ultimately seeking to destroy the life of another.

I highly recommend it, especially if you have a soft spot for animals, and in particular, if you consider dogs, man's best friend.



Blogger Karen @ Mignardise said...

Nice review. I've thought about reading this book, and now I will make an effort to do it soon.

I love finding other Maine bloggers too!

12:05 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks for weighing in on my review of Stein's excellent book. I think you'll find it worth the reading effort.

Like you, it's always nice to discover another blogger residing in the Pine Tree State.

I blog a bit more regularly over at Words Matter, using this blog to focus on books, writing, and my own thoughts on the writer's craft.


8:09 PM  
Anonymous Lisa K. said...

You know, I must be the only person I know who was not that crazy about this book. I agree that the technique of using the dog as the voice made the story more appealing, but I felt the last half of it was interminably drawn out and failed to hold my interest. Especially when there was really no question, given the nature of the book, how it was going to all turn out.

6:56 AM  

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