Garth Stein takes his chances with treacle overdose in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The novel’s hero, Denny, faces his wife’s struggle with terminal illness only to face his in-laws in a protracted battle for the custody of his young daughter. As if this plot wasn’t risky enough, Mr. Stein chooses Enzo, the family dog, as the narrator for his novel. If this doesn’t raise enough red flags to decorate a used car lot, consider that Enzo’s age, which puts him in his final years, has made him start dreaming of reincarnation as a human. This could all go horribly wrong.
But it works. In large part because Enzo, the dog narrator, is sure to win over even the most skeptical, urban sophisticate like yours truly. Enzo begins his story at the end–he is old, his body is starting to break down, but he is looking forward to his next incarnation as a human since he has successfully overseen the happy ending the novel will eventually reach. Enzo, like many pets, has spent much of his life home alone with the television on, Public Television. He once saw a program about Buddhism in Mongolia that explained the high position dogs hold, so high that the next step up is reincarnation as a human. Enzo is devoted to his owner, Denny, as only a dog can be. He hopes this devotion will lead him to life as a human being.
A dog narrator has it pluses and it minuses. On the plus side, people assume they can talk freely in front of a dog. Those given to thinking out loud make confessions to dogs, revealing secrets they wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else. (If they’re like me, they pause their confessions to give the dog a chance to jump in with her view.) Thus, Enzo is a first person narrator who is almost able to function as a third person omniscient one. He knows more than anyone else possibly could. As an intelligent, thinking being, he is able to editorialize about what the humans in the story are up to. However, because he is also a character in the book, his narration never comes across as the voice of the author preaching to the audience; it’s just what one character thinks about another. On the minus side, he is a dog. A dog cannot offer testimony in a court of law, nor can he do much to change the course of events in the human world though Enzo does do what he can, often to great effect. There are a few points in the novel where I would have preferred to be where the action was, instead of home with the dog watching television.
The Art of Racing in the Rain could have gone terrible wrong, it could have ended up a simple tear-jerker, just another re-telling of Kramer vs. Kramer, this time with a father who wants to be race car driver. It’s really Enzo, the dog-narrator, who saves the book from this fate. In spite of his religious beliefs and his ability to understand very high levels of language, he remains a dog devoted to pleasing his master. His love for his owners has no limit so once we start rooting for Enzo we can’t help but root for Denny. Fifty or sixty pages into the book, urban sophistication began to give way. Thirty pages more, Enzo had won me over completely. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I liked him.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009 when this book was THE book. I remember how pleased I was to finally be getting A-list ARC’s. I really did enjoy the book, too. The author did an interview with me that I will run tomorrow or later this week.
I decided to re-run it today because it is raining. It’s been raining a lot here in Northern California which is good for us, but darned inconvenient just the same. I’m also in the process of migrating my reviews along with many of my more random posts from my old blog over to this new one. It’s kind of a chore but it’s been kind of fun, too.