The first time The Story of Edgar Sawtelle hit my (Ben) radar was when a publisher rep said it was the best thing she’d read in ten years. When someone who reads hundreds of books a year says that, you take note.
Each successive reader registered similar praise. Strangely, the more recommendations I heard, the more resistant I was to reading it myself. Chalk it up to an aversion to hype. If I was going to jump on the bandwagon, I intended to do it when I was good and ready.
On vacation, I was good and ready. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is superior pop fiction. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, not without its flaws, but well worth your time.
The story behind the book is almost as interesting as the book itself. The author, David Wroblewski, spent fifteen years writing it, and the book draws inspiration from Genesis, Hamlet, Kipling and Darwin. Wroblewski had minor surgery on his tongue in the early 90s and was unable to talk until he fully recovered. That experience inspired the main character, Edgar, who is born mute. Edgar forms a mystical connection with dogs, which his family breeds on a farm in Wisconsin. Their dogs are famous enough to be branded; Sawtelle dogs are a behavioral breed that, through training, develop an almost human capacity for decision-making.
Of all the literary inspirations Wroblewski draws from, Hamlet is clearly the most central. Even if you last read it in high school, you probably remember enough to catch the parallels. Edgar’s father dies in a mysterious fashion, and shortly thereafter Edgar’s uncle Claude insinuates himself into the family. One night in the kennel, Edgar’s father appears to him as a ghost in the rain. Edgar plots revenge, and trains his litter to stage a play of sorts that confirms who killed his father. Fearing for his life, Edgar flees into the Chequamegon National Forest and spends most of the last half of the book wandering before he returns home to avenge his father.
Wroblewski’s descriptions of the farm and the natural landscape are pitch-perfect and achieve an almost Biblical cadence. “As they worked, they put the sky in place above, the trees in the ground,” Wroblewski says of Edgar training his dogs. “They invented color and air and scent and gravity.” Communication, or the lack thereof, is one of the book’s big themes. Edgar creates his own form of language, mostly borrowed from sign language but with quirks only his parents understand. (Wroblewski has Edgar “speak” in regular dialogue form but without quotations.) In a moment of crisis, Edgar calls 911 but is unable to talk. He is given the opportunity, early on, to reveal a truth about his father’s killer that he keeps to himself. And he fails to make amends with several people before he must flee into the wilderness, leaving him heavy with remorse and guilt.
Wroblewski claims the arc of the story came to him in five minutes. Whether that’s true or not, he’s an ingenious plotter. The book unfolds in five parts, much like a five act play. The last part is propulsively action-driven, cathartic and tragic and satisfying in all the right ways. The natural world figures strongly in every part, particularly in Edgar’s flight into the Chequamegon, which includes a tour-de-force set piece of a waterspout on Lake Superior.
My only quibble is that some characters lack the same depth and range that Wroblewski provides to the story and its landscape. I think of writing taking place on two planes, the vertical and the horizontal. Wroblewski is a fantastic horizontal writer: he nails the story, the plotting, the physical descriptions. Vertical writing — the soul of a story, so to speak, plumbing the depths of the characters while juggling big ideas that elevate the ceiling of the story — is where Wroblewski has mixed success. No character comes off as a cliche, but Edgar’s parents, for example, remain straightforward and uncomplicated. What you see is what you get. And it’s not that Edgar Sawtelle doesn’t tackle those big ideas, or have real heart. But some risks pay off while others fall flat. Edgar’s father appearing as a ghost in the rain works; the town psychic, an employee at the local market who pops up occasionally to deliver cryptic prophecies, is less successful. (Same with a farmer ghost late in the story, whose appearance is never fleshed out.) Good for Wroblewski for inviting the supernatural right into the heart of his story, but I wish he’d channeled a little less Stephen King.
Don’t let any of those qualifications deter you from reading the book though. Don’t let the length (576 pages) deter you either. It’s rare to get your hands on a long book that’s also such a pleasure to read. Some would say they only come around about once every ten years.
(Powells.com did an interview with Wroblewski and Gil Adamson that’s well worth reading too.)