Well, the dog days are technically over, but a good wrist breaker of a book is always in season. With raves from reviewers as varied as Stephen King, Richard Russo, and Oprah Winfrey (she’s just made it the next selection for her book club), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has made quite a splash for a first novel by an author who was a software designer until very recently. A description of the novel’s main elements makes it sound a little dicey: a mute boy, a special breed of dog, a deep cross-species relationship between the mute boy and a dog named, of all things, Almondine, and, perhaps scariest of all, a plot that parallels Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with some of the main characters played by dogs. In lesser hands this could have been (sorry) howlingly bad. But the ten years David Wroblewski spent writing this novel paid off. The reader truly doesn’t want the story to end, and knowing that Hamlet ends badly doesn’t kill that little hope that the author will veer off the Shakespearean plot line at the last minute.
Wroblewski has come up with characters even more unique than their descriptions would lead you to expect. Edgar, the mute boy, learns to sign at an early age. Since he is not deaf, the reasons for his muteness remain a mystery. His parents consult a doctor about it early in his life, but later just accept it. Here, Edgar’s doctor has brought in someone for him to meet:
The man signs hello to him, a flick of his hand off his forehead, then asks him something, signing faster than Edgar has ever seen, one sign melting into another.
Too fast, he signs.
He grabs the man’s wrists and makes him do it again.
The man turns to the doctor, speaks a few words, and the doctor nods.
You sound funny, Edgar signs. The man laughs, and even that is odd.
Do I? he signs. I’m deaf. I’ve never heard my voice.
Edgar stares at him as if he didn’t know a deaf person would look just the same. From behind the man, his mother frowns and shakes her head.
How old are you? the man signs.
Almost four, he says. He holds up four fingers, with his thumb tucked in, bumps the I-hand twice against his heart.
You’re very good. I couldn’t sign like you when I was four.
I’m backward from you. I can hear okay.
Yes. It’s good we both sign.
Can you sign with your dogs? Mine don’t always understand.
My dog never understands, he signs, smiling.
The dogs in the story are fully developed, not anthropomorphized. Wroblewski succeeds at his goal of making each one uniquely drawn, yet still believably dog-like — not a “person in a dog suit,” as he puts it in an NPR interview. Here’s a description of Almondine, missing Edgar’s father:
To her, the scent and the memory of him were one. Where it lay strongest, the distant past came to her as if that morning: Taking a dead sparrow from her jaws, before she knew to hide such things. Guiding her to the floor, bending her knee until the arthritis made it stick, his palm hotsided on her ribs to measure her breaths and know where the pain began. And to comfort her. That had been the week before he went away.
He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep. She stood then and nosed into the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom — especially the closet — her intention to press her ruff against his hand, run it along his thigh, feel the heat of his body through the fabric…
Yet he was gone. She knew it most keenly in the diminishment of her own self. In her life, she’d been nourished and sustained by certain things, him being one of them, Trudy another, and Edgar, the third and most important, but it was really the three of them together, intersecting in her, for each of them powered her heart a different way. Each of them bore different responsibilities to her and with her and required different things from her, and her day was the fulfillment of those responsibilities. She could not imagine that portion of her would never return. With her it was not hope, or wistful thoughts — it was her sense of being alive that thinned by the proportion of her spirit devoted to him.
Stephen King says “I don’t reread many books, because life is too short. I will be rereading this one.”
author photo: Marion Ettlinger