(This review first appeared in July 2008)
Rating:The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. Ecco (2008), 576 pages.
I heard about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle long before it was published, due to early rave reviews billing it as “An American Masterpiece.” I was excited about this as the plot sounded unbeatable: a mute boy runs away from home with a band of dogs he raised from puppyhood. For a dog lover it doesn’t get any better than that. Except, sadly, Mr. Wroblewski can’t write. I feel badly about saying that because I suspect he is a very nice person, but when a book arrives on the scene with this kind of hoopla (comparisons to Life of Pi! Call of the Wild! Hamlet even!) someone has to let potential readers know whether or not the book lives up to all the hype. And this book (sorry Mr. Wroblewski) absolutely does not.
Here are just a few of the many problems:
1. The characterization. I still have no real idea who any of the main characters are—what drives them, how they think, what they feel. I have vague, general ideas (as one might get from a thriller or mystery where plot is the point rather than the characters) but nothing at all that makes me care about any of them.
2. The plot. The basics—a mute boy, his dogs, running away from home—are promising enough, but Wroblewski just does not know what to do with them. His book reads like a first draft of a first novel of someone who has not yet learned how to hold all the pieces together. And he is in desperate need of an editor. Which brings me to my next point.
3. The writing. This book could easily have been half the length without sacrificing anything at all. There are whole pages that go nowhere and plot points that wander off into the woods never to be heard from again. And I did read the entire book, all the way to the bitter boring end, hoping that somehow things would all come together and the book would at least somewhat redeem itself. It did not.
4. The dogs. This is the most disappointing and most unforgivable aspect of the book for me. As a long-time dog lover (I grew up with them and have lived with them my whole life) I live for books about dogs—fiction, nonfiction, even kind of badly written books, as long as the dog part is well done. And I can promise you, this is not well done at all. The author must know something about dogs as his bio says he grew up on a breeding farm, but if so he is clearly not capable of writing about them. The internal world he has created for them simply does not match how dogs are. If you want to read a good dog book, read Merle’s Door, Call of the Wild, Where the Red Fern Grows, Pack of Two.
5. The ending. After being alternately annoyed and bored out of my mind for five hundred pages I still had hoped for some kind of payoff in the end. It is, after all, being marketed as a literary mystery. Perhaps there was some kind of wow I can’t believe it!! final scene? Again, no. The ending is contrived, unsatisfying, and has all the melodrama of a soap opera. It is not suspenseful, it did not warm my heart, it did not cause me to reflect upon redemption or the power of love. And it certainly did not make me think, “Oh wow, a modern-day Hamlet!” It did not even make me want to go hug my dog.