David Wroblewski: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel - David Wroblewski

I struggled with this book. After about 130 pages of yeesh, I put it down, but then I heard that it does get interesting so I picked it back up. I finished it on the second go, but only barely. Shakespeare would never have asked an audience to get through 130 pages of text before the story started -- because the audience would have revolted and thrown things at the actors. In fact, I could have read the original Hamlet twice over before Gar's ghost finally showed up in this version. If I had some rotten tomatoes and a responsible party to throw them at, I would have.

Wroblewski doesn't lack ambition: he took one of the best pieces of literature ever written, set it in America, and spent 500 pages retelling it (*cough* Steinbeck *cough*). That's a difficult choice, mostly because with a retelling the reader is going to be distracted by the original text while reading, both to look for parallels and to anticipate the plot. Further, Wroblewski is directly inviting us to compare his book with both Hamlet and The Grapes of Wrath. You had better be full of win to pull this off. This was not.

Besides the main problems, I also had a dog problem with this book. I've read and liked other books that featured dogs (The Dogs of Babel, Wild Dogs), but the Sawtelle Dogs left me cold. While individual dogs can make interesting characters, theories of dog breeding did not engage me. I kind of skimmed over the ending, so maybe the historic debate about what makes a great dog contributed to the book's overall thesis. I don't know, and I didn't care enough about the Sawtelle Dogs at that or any other point to try to figure it out. Aren't real dogs kind of goofy and lovable sometimes? Aren't they warm and loving and excitable? These didn't feel like real dogs as much as statues depicting loyalty who came to life and ran around obediently.

As other readers have noted, the reader is left with many questions at the end of the book, and I wondered why some of these problems were left to stand when the book went to print. Other readers have pointed out most of them. The me the most irksome was that we never learn the meaning of what his father's ghost was telling Edgar: he gave us the name Hachiko, who we know is a dog in the Sawtelle line, but we still don't know what it means. Overall, I'd say this is a good example of the book's flaw: too many ideas too loosely formed with too little plot (which is really the opposite of what Shakespeare achieved with the same material). That, and a weak editor.

Not recommended.