101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith; I carried that book with my everywhere. I can remember, before the days of seat-belt laws, being ensconced in the very back of our station wagon with a pillow, blanket and my beloved book all settled in for a long road trip. That story was magic to me long before I ever grew to love the Disney version.
So when my book club chose Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain as this month's selection I was interested, but ambivalent, about a grown-up story told from a dog's point of view.
Enzo is a lab/terrier mix who becomes the beloved pet of Denny, an aspiring race-car driver. Enzo is the audience's window into Denny's life from bachelorhood, to marriage and the unfortunate illness of his wife. As Denny's circumstances spin further out of control, Enzo is always there to offer quiet encouragement and the occasional well-placed "accident."
Enzo's greatest wish is to be human and he frequently laments his lack of opposable thumbs. His philosophy on life is based a great deal on racing, having spent hours watching racing videos with Denny, and the old racing rule-- that we go where our eyes go-- figures a lot into Enzo's view of the world. He's an old soul, well educated from watching lots of television, and has a keen insight into the world around him. He's so human that he's sure he's ready to come back in the next life as a human being.
As you'd expect "The Art of Racing in the Rain" is a sweet, charming book. Having a dog as a main character, as long at it's written with some skill, is as close to a sure-fire method to having a likable main character as you could possibly get. And Enzo is endearing no matter what he does because his motives are so pure and unencumbered by matters outside his family. He's a dog so his focus is predictably narrow and uncomplicated. The method of using a dog as a narrator is fun from the aspect of seeing the world through the eyes of an animal that has quite a bit of access to the lives of those he observes. He drifts in-and-out of conversations and picks up information that would be very useful to the people he loves-- if only he could manipulate his long, slippery tongue around the words he so desperately wants to say.
But the book falters when the story goes from Enzo's pontificating and dwells on the ups-and-downs of Denny's personal life. And here's where I throw in a few spoilers. For a race-car driver, Denny is a really passive guy. There are things that happen outside of Denny's control, like that of his wife's illness; but Denny doesn't make her go to the doctor, even when she is incapacitated by pain. When she dies and her parent's hatch a plan to take Denny's daughter, he doesn't see it coming even though it's starkly evident. And that's pretty much the pattern for the whole book: Bad things happen while Denny seems clueless as to what's going on. I didn't even like Denny for the first half of the book.
I understand that the whole book is written as a metaphor for a race. The mantra you go where your eyes go is repeated frequently and Enzo speaks often of Denny's determination and faith that he will never quit until the race is finished. But the circumstances that are thrown at Denny to make the long-haul of the endurance race necessary (as a metaphor) seem contrived. I've been known in the past to say that a story lacks tension because the solutions are too conveniently found, but in this case the problems are too predictable and too easily avoided to be convincing. And the result of such a rote, by-the-book story is that we're never surprised by anything.
It could be that I'm not the kind of person who should be reading "The Art of Racing in the Rain." Maybe my early years of infatuation with "101 Dalmatians" has left me with a desire for whimsy that can't be presented in a book that deals with cancer, accusations of sexual misconduct, death and grief. My expectations of what a doggy narrator means to a book were definitely confounded by this book. That isn't to say it isn't a good book, though I don't think it lives up to the hype. I think the problem, for me, is that "The Art of Racing in the Rain" is still too Oprah Book Club for my taste.
3 out of 5 stars.