The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

November 13th, 2008 at 5:12 pm

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I wanted to read this book immediately upon its release because of its glowing reviews and its canine content. From what I was able gleam, it seemed a book I could get into.

Then Oprah chose it for her book club.

Now, I don’t really have anything against Oprah nor her book club, I think any mode of getting people excited about books and reading is a good thing, but why do I feel pangs of embarrassment for reading an Oprah book club pick? Why do I feel more affiliation with Jonathan Franzen, who snubbed her? Why am I still bothered by all that silliness over James Frey?

But I picked it up regardless.

The title is “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.” Most books, regardless of content, whether a financial self-help volume or even a cooking guide, are stories. So why must this one declare itself a “story” in the very title? The publisher even declared it “A Novel” on the cover, a common practice, and one increasingly necessary in this touchy, post-James Frey world we live in.

But Edgar Sawtelle (which I like to think is pronounced Suh-telly) is a novel, completely made up by David Wroblewski, a man who displays significant expertise in, among other things, the likes of dogs, dogs training, dog birthing, dog breeding, canasta, and sign language. The book, all 562 pages of it, is rich in life, full of the minute details and abstract psychology that we seem to miss in our everyday lives but is such a part of life. I was again and again impressed by how powerfully Wroblewski imagined the stirring aspects of communicating in sign language, the methods of dog training, family dynamics, a young boy’s daring coming-of-age, and the inner lives of dogs. But a cerebral, psychological novel this is not. It is full of action, narrative, suspense, and mystery.

There are fantastic images and sequences of dog training. One in particular in which our young protagonist teaches his young pups to instruct each other. A dog owner myself, I was inspired.

Wroblewski’s style is a classic, straightforward approach that does not draw attention to itself like so much postmodern charm with its neon nouns and gyrating gerunds. But rather, it is a quiet style that reveals itself only after you realize you’ve read 8 chapters and your cell phone is chiming with text messages from friends wondering “where u at?”

Such ease and pleasurable reading is why I think Wroblewski declared Edgar Sawtelle “a story.” Because it harkens back to a more traditional mode of telling stories, ones told around campfires and to children and through generations of cultures in order to teach, inspire, explain, and entertain. It is a conventional method of storytelling, not one obsessed with the formalist intricacies of the words themselves but how they can be used to evoke and share.

Books such as this often get lumped into unfortunate schemas such as “beach reading” and “pleasure reading” because they easily reward their readers with entertainment and satisfaction. And Edgar Sawtelle may very well become one of these books, a Titantic of books, a work immediately praised with monetary success and industry awards, but quickly fades away into forgotten shelves of past excitement.

Only time will tell. And by then, hopefully Wroblewski will have written four more.

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