From Anton Chekhov's "Kashtanka" and Franz Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog," down through Jack London's "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang," and including Albert Payson Terhune's improbably massive canine oeuvre, right up to such iconic names as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller and John Steinbeck's Charley, stories in which dogs feature as significant characters largely have lent themselves to taxonomic classification as either juvenilia, divertissement, memoir, or genre work.
With David Wroblewski's meaty, masterly debut novel, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," easily the best work of fiction ever written about dogs (as well as the longest), such works are rendered not just moot, but moribund.
For one thing, the story resonates, if too explicitly, with many of the same dramatic elements found in "Hamlet," "The Odyssey," the parable of Cain and Abel and every coming-of-age novel of the magical-realism school. Although set in early 1970s northern Wisconsin, it is a timeless work of fiction.
For another thing, while breaking no new technical ground, the syntax, sensibility and approach of the book are nothing if not frankly adult. This is not just another boy's rollicking-but-poignant adventure tale starring a stalwart canine companion. It is, despite a jarring, apocalyptically over-the-top, if arrestingly written, ending, what we mean when we speak of Literature.
Edgar's story is long, though seldom long-winded. Nearly half the book assumes the form of a North Woods rite-of-passage journey that does not so much breeze along as it buoys and carries the reader inevitably onward by sure foot and steadier vision (despite all the pestiferous mosquitoes).
The titular Edgar is not a dog, of course, but the story's 14-year-old protagonist, the congenitally mute, precociously sensitive only child of a dog breeder obsessed with the esoterica of his profession, and a preternaturally gifted trainer.
It is Edgar's eccentric grandfather, John Sawtelle, who in the waning days of World War I, some 40 years before Edgar's birth, becomes besotted with the idea of applying his unorthodox, whimsically idiosyncratic principles to breeding a new line of uber-dog on his farm south of Ashland—the German Shepherd-esque Sawtelle.
Upon his retirement, the quixotic enterprise passes into the hands of his feuding sons, the rebellious and ungovernable Claude, who wants little to do with it, and Claude's older brother and Edgar's father, Gar, who with Edgar's mother, Trudy, not only makes it his life's work but his calling.
Reared among the uncannily responsive, nimble-witted dogs, voiceless Edgar learns to communicate with parent and canine using an improvised sign language understood most profoundly by one of the female Sawtelles, Almondine, who from birth has been Edgar's bosom friend and steadfast steward. It is chiefly around her that Wroblewski weaves some of the most moving prose about dogs ever committed to paper.
He channels Almondine without condescending to, sentimentalizing, or, most impressively, anthropomorphizing, her. And this is the book's major accomplishment. Almondine never utters a word, yet Wroblewski endows her with an evocatively rich interior life rife with thoughts and dreams and emotions that lend felt meaning to her every plausible gesture. In the end, she not only graces the page as an entirely credible, fully realized, autonomous character but as the emotional pivot and fulcrum of the story.
Shortly after Claude reappears, ostensibly to help out around the farm, Edgar's father meets an untimely end. This cripples the boy with insomnia-inducing guilt for having failed to do more to prevent it. In the wake of a late-night, postmortem visitation, however—and in one of the novel's most stunningly written passages—he becomes convinced that his father's apparent heart attack entailed foul play.
Materializing before his son in the midst of a downpour, water-sculpted of the storm's flurry of raindrops and spectrally illumined by the fan of the farm's yard light, Gar "set his hand flat against the center of Edgar's chest":
"A whispery splash on his skin. . . . [T]hen he brought his other hand forward and Edgar felt something pass into him, and his father made as if to cradle Edgar's heart. . . . [C]upped the thing in his hands as though it were a newborn pup. . . .
"The world grayed. Then memories flooded into Edgar in a cascade, . . . images seen by a baby, a toddler, a young man, an adult. All his father's memories given to him at once."
As Claude horns his way first into managing the dogs and then into Trudy's bed, Edgar, having become oddly estranged from Almondine while brooding on how best to revenge his father, bides his time training his own litter of Sawtelles. When the auspicious moment arrives, it goes so awry that Edgar is compelled to abandon the aged Almondine and flee on foot into the wilds of the swampy Chequamegon Forest—pursued for murder, he mistakenly believes, by the police—accompanied by 300 pounds of young Sawtelle.
Surviving hand-to-mouth, Edgar and the three dogs, absent map, compass, food and water, aimlessly navigate the vast, skeeter-infested bush for months—enduring any number of detours, dangers and desperate moments—including a Lake Superior-hatched tornado—before being providentially befriended.
Trapped in a lakeside cove, Edgar watches slack-jawed as Essay, the alpha female, attacks the howling funnel again and again:
"[D]rawn by her vision, her compulsion, whatever had made her race to meet the pillar that roared at them from out on the water. . . .
"[T]he wind blew her hind feet out from under her and she rolled . . . before scrambling up and facing the wind squarely again. . . .
"Now Essay tried to advance. . . . [A] hieroglyph of a dog, stripped . . . to her essence, insane and true all at the same time. . . .
"She had made this choice, he thought—what his grandfather had always wanted, what he'd wished for time and again."At last, summoned telepathically by Almondine—or her spirit—Edgar and Essay make it back to the farm where, in an orgy of violence consecrated by a final visitation, this time by Almondine, they are at once blessed and cursed with their freedom, and their fate.
"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is not a family saga, but it is an ambitious, accomplished, though not flawless work. The author too often lapses into Hemingwayese, or piles on three descriptive details where two would do, or indulges a moment of portentous foreshadowing, and there is a scene or three that might have been cut or trimmed to the narrative's benefit.
None of this, however, diminishes the incandescent power of a novel that can only be declared a critical success. Is it not, after all, the blemish in beauty that most enchants us?
Above all, the book is wise to a sage and hard-won truth. Not only, as Edgar's ordeal has instructed him, that, "Life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive," but a simpler, vastly more difficult one. Namely, that if we would only permit them, dogs would alert us to the better angels of our nature. That it is their existence that amplifies, augments and humanizes our own. That, at last, "it would be better to imagine how men might become more suitable for dogs and not the other way around."
The Story of Edgar SawtelleBy David WroblewskiEcco, 566 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times