In his first novel, David Wroblewski has brought into being a lush and fully furnished world. Even at its daunting length, I didn't want it to end.
The story is set in northeastern Wisconsin in the 1960s and '70s, although it is essentially timeless. It concerns the Sawtelle family: grandfather, sons and the protagonist grandson, Edgar. They run a family business in dog breeding. The Sawtelle dogs are highly prized, but not for show nor any specific work. Instead they are raised to be near-perfect companions for anyone the family deems sufficiently discriminating. Dogs are not "placed" until adulthood in order to realize their full potential in grace, skill and intelligence.
Trudy Sawtelle explains to her son, Edgar, that the animals are not simply taught such commands as "Stay," "Sit," "Retrieve," "Release" etc., but to understand the reasons for them: You are not training a rote behavior but a language and its meanings. Each dog has a different innate intelligence, personality and talent that must be nurtured and brought to its peak.
I have never had a dog nor much interest in the canine world, but the pages and pages of training details as a newborn puppy grows into adulthood had me enthralled. A number of the dogs are as fascinating and charismatic as the humans, especially Edgar's companion since birth, Almondine, and the elusive, powerful stray Forte who will play a fateful role in Edgar's life.
Chief among the canine characters are the dogs in the first litter Edgar names and trains on his own, using the Oxford English Dictionary as a Ouija board: Finch, Pout, Opal, Babou, Tinder, Umbra and the one who will become their leader and Edgar's lieutenant, Essay. Edgar was born mute, which makes his bond with his dogs, who learn his sign language, especially deep.
Trudy, Edgar, his father Gar, their neighbor and vet, Dr. Papineau, live in a self-contained world in which love, respect and order reign until Gar's ne'er-do-well brother Claude, with a shady past involving dog-fighting and other crimes, shows up. The brothers have never gotten along, and their renewed sparring causes tension. When he finally leaves, peace is restored, until the day Edgar finds his father dying on the barn floor, apparently of an aneurism.
Edgar and Trudy struggle to keep the kennels going, but the work and their grief are overwhelming. So this time, when Claude returns, Trudy is forced to accept his help.
Edgar resents him as an intruder and senses that Claude is hiding something. He discovers what that is on a stormy night in a breathtaking scene in which his father's ghost forms through a veil of rain and gives him a mission. When I tell you that the plot of the novel is based on "Hamlet," you will realize that tragedy is looming over the Sawtelles and their dogs.
Edgar finds Claude's presence and his growing relationship with Trudy unbearable. After training his dogs to put on a sort of play as a warning to Claude, but tragically killing the wrong man, 14-year-old Edgar runs away with three of his top dogs, Babou, Tinder and Essay, hoping to cross into Canada and join a commune he's seen on television.
For months Edgar evades capture by keeping to the deep woods, staying barely alive by foraging, fishing, and breaking into unoccupied cabins. He drills his dogs through recalls and come-fors, fetches, stays and guarding.
"Chasing. Sitting still. Scenting targets. Now the same acts drew up the ties between them, put them back together, as though shaping the world from scratch. As they worked, they put the sky in place above, the trees in the ground. They invented color and air and scent and gravity. Laughter and sadness. They discovered truth and lies." He finds refuge with a lonely bachelor named Henry, but after several weeks concludes he can neither stay nor go on. He returns home and so makes his way straight into the heart of darkness and reckoning. Reading the last section of the book, I felt my heart in my throat.
In such a long book, there are gaudy purple patches here and there, but no limp pages. Wroblewski is as good as Jane Smiley, who set "King Lear" in contemporary Iowa, and if he keeps up this level of work, he'll be in Louise Erdrich's company. And that is high praise.
Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews for the Los Angeles Times.