Sun, Jun 15, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Talking to dogs without a word

Software developer David Wroblewski has burst onto the literary scene with a coming-of-age tale that pays rapt attention to the power of communication


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By David Wroblewski
566 pages

"This will be his earliest memory," The Story of Edgar Sawtelle says about its title character. "Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin."

That’s a good way for a boy to meet a dog. It’s an even better way to get acquainted with the most enchanting debut novel of the summer. Written over a decade by the heretofore unknown David Wroblewski and arriving as a bolt from the blue, this is a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana. Absent the few dates and pop-cultural references that place the book somewhere in the post-Eisenhower 20th century, its unmannered style, emotional heft and sweeping ambition would keep it timeless.

Wroblewski happens to have borrowed, here and there, from Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare, Richard Russo, Stephen King and the 1934 dog-breeding book Working Dogs. And he writes as if he grew up in a library well-stocked with great novels of the prairie. But the voice heard in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle sounds like no one else’s as this book creates its enthralling, warmly idiosyncratic story.

The narrative is of course centered on Edgar, a boy who reminds himself of Kipling’s Mowgli (from The Jungle Book) in his uncanny ability to communicate with dogs. Dog breeding is the family avocation. In the Sawtelles’ remote Wisconsin kennel, “they had photographs of every dog they’d ever raised but none of themselves.”

Wroblewski puts Edgar on a warm, cozy, paw-boxing basis with the Sawtelle dogs by rendering the boy mute from birth. Although Edgar’s condition is a terrible liability at certain crucial plot junctures, it is more often a blessing. Edgar speaks his own private sign language to people and dogs alike. He has no trouble making himself understood to his loved ones, whether they have two legs or four.

And Wroblewski has a deft, natural way of conveying Edgar’s relationship to language. Edgar speaks as clearly as any of the book’s other human characters do. It’s just that his dialogue, unlike theirs, is presented without quotation marks. Within the Sawtelle household, Edgar is by far the easiest person to understand.

That’s because Wroblewski gives this family the Hamlet treatment, in general terms though not slavishly derivative ones. Edgar adores his mother, Trudy, and resents his long-lost uncle, Claude. When an unhappy fate befalls Edgar’s father, Gar, the suspicions of this now 14-year-old boy are aroused. Trouble ensues. But The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is by no means Hamlet with hounds. This book’s brief encounters with prophecy and the supernatural have as much to do with King’s Maine as they do with Shakespeare’s Denmark.

In a book that pays rapt attention to the power of communication, there are things that Edgar at first simply cannot understand. His parents are beguiling but mysterious. (The only answer Edgar can get to the question of how they met is: “In a good way. You’d only be disappointed in the details.”)

One of Wroblewski’s most impressive accomplishments here is to exert a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible.

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