Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ever wonder what your dog is thinking?

It probably wasn't the best idea for me to read Garth Stein's "The Art of Racing in the Rain" (Harper, 2008, 336 pp., $14.99 paperback) when I'm on the fence about getting a dog.

You see, Stein's book is written from the perspective of a dog - a very smart Labrador-terrier mix named Enzo. He's a dog that wants to be human and yearns for the ability to speak so the humans around him can fully understand him. In the book, we are privy to the full extent of Enzo's thoughts and fears

You know from the beginning that Enzo will die. That's not a spoiler. He tells his story in retrospect, when he's on his last legs, so to speak.

“In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog’s master whispers into the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. The his tail is cut off and put beneath his head, and a piece of meat or fat is placed in his mouth to sustain his soul on its journey; before he is reincarnated, the dog’s soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high desert plains for as long as he would like.

I learned that from a program on the National Geographic Channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready.

I am ready.”

I liked the book, but I didn't love it. I expected to love it, but ultimately found it a little forced and contrived at times. However, it's a great premise and a quick read - the story moves in such a way that you want to finish it to know how things end up.

Enzo is the dog of race-car driver Denny Swift. Denny is known for his prowess on the racetrack of driving in the rain - in wet conditions such as are omnipresent in his town, Seattle. Enzo shares Denny's passion for the track, and loves to watch videos of old races and race movies starring the likes of Steve McQueen. Enzo loves to hang out at the track, and even to be Denny's copilot on occasion.

But this novel not as simple a story as a man and his dog and their shared love of auto racing.

Denny falls in love with a woman named Eve, whom he marries and fathers a child with. Eve becomes ill and (spoiler alert) dies, and her very wealthy parents engage Denny in a drawn-out and nasty child-support lawsuit for the little girl, Zoe.

This is where perhaps I lost my taste for the narrative.

All sorts of awful stuff befa
lls Denny, who loses basically everything in this battle for custody. Enzo is his staunch ally, and dreams of speaking on Denny's behalf in a court of law, as he has overheard some evidence from the "twins" (his name for Eve's parents) that could help Denny ... but, he can't speak!

I won't ruin the suspense by revealing to y
ou how that part of the story turns out.

The best part of this book is the witty Enzo, with his complex vocabulary and keen understanding of the whims of human folk. There are some funny parts, such as when Enzo, dazed with hunger and hallucinating after being forgotten at home alone for 3 days, sees a "demon" in young Zoe's stuffed animals. He fixates on one demon in particular, a zebra who dismantles itself just to spite Enzo. But of course, when the family return
s home, it's not the zebra that takes the blame.

Enzo does not fear death, he looks forward to it. He believes he will be reincarnated as a man after he dies - he's seen this in a documentary on TV. Enzo dreams of coming back to shake Denny's hand when he's in human form, and possesses the opposable thumbs he's been denied in his canine existence.

The novel is not without its philosophical references: Driving as a metaphor for life. "That which we manifest is b
efore us" is a recurrent theme.

"Such a simple concept, yet so true: that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves."

I predict this
long-running New York Times bestseller will translate nicely into film. According to, a movie of the novel is in development. Rumor has it Patrick Dempsey will play Denny.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" also, contrary to my expectation, helped to quell my desire to become a dog owner - for the moment. This is tough as both my sister and my brother recently adopted very adorable dogs. But in this book there's a chapter in which a vet bill costs Denny $812 when he really doesn't have it. Well, putting it in financial terms really hammers it home to me. My wallet and I flinched over a $30 doctor copay just last week!

The novel is one of three written by Garth Stein, who also penned "How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets" (2005); and "Raven Stole the Moon" (2010).

Stein earned a bachelor's from Columbia College and an MFA in film from Columbia University. According to the bio on his website, Stein was raised in currently resides in Seattle and has worked as a documentary filmmaker.

He's pictured here with his dog, Comet.

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