At a publishing party, I was chatting with a literary agent who's one of the titans of this troubled business.
"In the last year, can you name a new novel you couldn't put down?" I asked.
Long pause. He couldn't. Nor could I. My Amazon.com account has become a blur of fiction hyped, fiction bought, fiction examined, fiction returned. And it's not like I'm seeking some arcane form. All I want is a great yarn and credible characters.
But because the Internet has taken a toll on even my attention span, I have some new limitations. Like: please give me just one story to follow -- no multiple or parallel plots. And brevity is key. Don't burden me with fancy style or pages of lovely description; if your novel tops 330 pages, I'm not your reader. [The model for this kind of book: The Queen's Gambit. Dare you to put it down.]
I have finally found a novel I can stand to read -- The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.
To my great astonishment, it's told by a dog. (I'm not a pet-lover).
It contains many insights about car racing. (I have no interest in car racing, and I look askance at sports analogies.)
And the author has described it as "Jonathan Livingston Seagull for dogs." (That book is tied with The Giving Tree as my Least Favorite Ever.)
So what do I find to praise?
The concept: "When a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man." Not all dogs. Only those who are ready. Enzo, a shepherd-poodle-terrier mix, is ready.
Enzo has spent years watching daytime TV, mostly documentaries and the Weather Channel (It's "not about weather, it is about the world"). And because Denny Swift, his owner, is a mechanic who's training to race cars, he and Enzo watch countless hours of race footage. So Enzo knows about the world beyond the Swift home near Seattle.
The situation is equally appealing: Enzo is old, facing death. While he has learned from racing movies to forget the past and live in the moment, this is his time to remember. And he can remember objectively -- as a dog, his senses are sharper, his emotions less complicated. With the clarity of a Buddha, Enzo can see. And he can listen: "I never interrupt, I never deflect the conversation with a comment of my own." So he's quite the knowing narrator.
And then the story: a happy family, brimming with good feeling and ambitious dreams. Denny loves Enzo like a son. Denny loves his wife Eve, who works for a big retail company that "provided us with money and health insurance." And Denny lives for Zoe, their daughter. Then Enzo smells something bad happening in Eve -- the dog is always the first to know -- and you start to brace yourself. But not enough, not nearly enough. Bad things happen to good people in this novel, and then worse things, and soon you are so angry, so hurt, so tear-stained and concerned that you do not think for one second to step back and say, hey, wait, this is just a story! A shaggy dog story, at that!
It works out. This is fiction, of course it works out. Not without cost to the characters and the reader. But the payoff is considerable -- a story that commands you to keep going, ideas that are a lot smarter than the treacle Garth Stein could have served up.
"How difficult it must be to be a person." Enzo nails that. "To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live." Who wouldn't? "Racing is about discipline and intelligence, not about who has the heavier foot. The one who drives smart will always win in the end." And there's more -- yeah, this could be summer reading in progressive high schools some day.
Or you could take a refresher course now in learning how to race in the rain.
[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]