Monday, March 23, 2009

Book Report: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," by David Wroblewski



To call"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"a tragedy is to give the thing away, but there is no path around it.

From the first pages of this long tale of an ill-fated Wisconsin family, writer David Wroblewski soaks his reader in a prose that reeks of foreboding and skillfully draws-out the deep vulnerability hidden beneath layers of illusion in all of us.

There is a strange prologue involving the death by poisoning of a dog in the back streets of an unnamed Korean city during the time of America’s military action in that country.

And poison is the story here, both literally and metaphorically. “Edgar Sawtelle” tells how a fateful act committed years before can affect so many people so many years after. It tells how one bad seed in a family can poison the well for all the rest.

Wroblewski’s large and first opus is set in mid-20th Century Wisconsin on a kennel started by a man who purchased a pretty parcel from an unlucky farmer and seemed to assume and bequeath that bad luck to his son and those of his immediate family.

It is a dog story, among many other kinds of story including family drama, road adventure, and small-town yarn writ large with life’s big questions. It is certainly more than the New York Times best-seller list summary, that imparts, “A mute takes refuge with three dogs in the Wisconsin woods after his father’s death,” which turns the neat trick of getting it all wrong while being right in the particular.

But that’s why Wroblewski wrote 562 pages and not a sentence and also why writers hate summaries.

Here is a detailed dissection of life on a kennel that, even in the 1950s, “placed” dogs with owners at a clip of $1,500 each. The book reveals the patient mind-grooming associated with the training of dogs and posits that an untrained dog is almost no dog at all, a furry potential unrealized. It goes inside the mind of the boy’s favorite, the tender Almondine, with a heart-wrenching authenticity. The novel unspools a debate surrounding the pairing of mates and mixing of bloodlines and the variety of goals behind these exercises. And it dramatizes the vanity of the untrained in such a delicate science and transfers the wild strain in one family’s genes to the breed of dogs that carries their name and genius.

“Edgar Sawtelle” is a portrait of mid-century, rural America that those who lived during or near either will recognize in the make and smell of cars, the brands of boxed sweets, the unregulated Fourth of July lakeside fireworks celebration, and Edgar’s “Zebco” fishing tackle.

And it is, of course, the “Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” born mute, but so hardy his struggle to communicate and evolve like other children is seemingly forgotten by his parents at no small expense.

Wroblewski’s writing is long on description and it is a tough decision to mention this characteristic critically, while simultaneously admitting to the strong sense of time and place his book imbues the reader with. His novel does not really get cooking until about 200 pages in, but after that really becomes a page-turner, which is a way of saying you have to work with “Edgar Sawtelle,” dealing both with the extended set-up and the nerve-wracking sense that something is going very wrong.

Which is to say it succeeds at engrossing, in taking a reader beyond the bucolic fa├žade of a kennel on a country road, and dissolving that image to reveal the terrible mistakes people can make and the resulting damage.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is a force to be reckoned with on its own terms.

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