|WROBLEWSKI (MARION ETTLINGER)|
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By David Wroblewski
Ecco, 566 pp., $25.95
There are many reasons one might be drawn to David Wroblewski's ambitious first novel, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." First of all, one has to have a heart of stone to dismiss a tale of a boy and his dog - or, in this case, a boy and his pack of dogs. Second, it is hard not to applaud the hubris of a writer resetting "Hamlet" in Wisconsin in the 1970s (complete with madness and ghosts) and making the prince (young Edgar) mute from birth. Then there are the lengthy ruminations, mysterious letters, and secret notes about breeding and perfecting a special line of dogs, a subplot that suggests a thriller is in the offing and reminded me briefly of "Frankenstein" and Kirsten Bakis's science fiction fable, "Lives of the Monster Dogs." (I am a fan of both books.)
And, finally, there is . . . the poison. Wroblewski introduces us to it in a short prologue set two decades earlier than the story itself, in Pusan, South Korea, in 1952. A shadowy American acquires a bottle from an elderly Korean herbalist, and then watches as the old man demonstrates its potency by using it to fell a stray dog with a drop on a reed.
Wroblewski has stirred all of these elements together in his weighty, 566-page debut, and the result can be hypnotic one moment and heavy-handed the next. My sense is that the book would have been more satisfying if it were a third shorter. A lot of the scenes could have used serious trimming or outright deletion.
That said, there is still much that works in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." The book is set primarily in the 100 acres in rural Wisconsin where Gar, Trudy, and their mute but brilliant son, Edgar, raise their carefully bred and spectacularly well-trained "Sawtelle" dogs. The animals are intelligent and playful and sweet, and they are so responsive to human commands that they sell for thousands of dollars each. Wroblewski invests the primary dogs with just enough personality that they are idiosyncratic and believable characters in their own right.
When Edgar is in eighth grade, into this bucolic world comes Gar's brother, Claude. Recently released from prison, Claude is as smart as Gar, but every bit the id to his brother's ego. Edgar can see that his uncle is undisciplined, quick to take short cuts, and has a renegade's soul. Not long after Gar mysteriously dies, Claude's designs become clear to Edgar: He wants both the Sawtelle dog business and his brother's wife. And here the echoes of Shakespeare become deafeningly clear: Gar is the murdered king of Denmark, Trudy is Queen Gertrude, and Claude is (of course) the murderous brother, Claudius. The kindly old veterinarian, Dr. Papineau, becomes the old courtier, Polonius, and the veterinarian's grown son takes on the guise of Laertes. (Edgar's beloved dog, Almondine, may be the stand-in for Ophelia, but don't worry: The chief parallels here are dedication and rejection.)
The plot moves ahead in the manner one familiar with "Hamlet" might expect, especially if Shakespeare had had access to old cars, baseball on the radio, and dog breeding. Wroblewski is a terrific writer and has an unerring ear for dialogue - both spoken and signed - and his scenes involving Edgar and his dogs are both authentic and moving, such as this one from when Edgar was a small boy:
"Wandering through the kennel, holding a book: Winnie-the-Pooh. He opens a whelping pen, sits. The puppies surge through the underbrush of loose straw, kicking up fine white dust as they come along. He captures them between his legs and reads to them, hands in motion before their upturned muzzles. The mother comes over and they peep like chicks when they see her. One by one she carries them back to the whelping box; they hang black and bean-shaped from her mouth. When she has finished, she stands over them, looking at Edgar in reproach. They wanted to hear, he signs at her, but the mother won't settle with her pups until he leaves."
A little bonding goes a long way, however, and there is a lot of bonding in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." There are scenes once Edgar has fled into the woods with his dogs that last an eternity. There are his encounters with a ghost (not his father's) that slow the novel for no apparent reason. And there are those lengthy transcripts from old letters about dog breeding that seem to belong in a science fiction novel.
But there are also Edgar and Claude, and the novel is riveting when those two are sparring. And there is Wroblewski's talent, which is evident even in those scenes that in my opinion should have been left on the cutting-room floor. And so while I can't say that I loved every moment of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," I will certainly look forward to Wroblewski's next effort.
Chris Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "Skeletons at the Feast," which was published in May.