Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dog's-Eye View: Garth Stein's "The Art of Racing in the Rain"

In one of Harlan Ellison's short stories, he recalls a dog he once owned and the life they shared: how the dog was a better judge of character than he ever was, and how he came to trust the canine's instincts with regard to the people in his life.  When the time came that the dog needed to be put to sleep, the vet told Ellison he did not need to be present, and left him to say farewell while the necessary items were arranged.

Ellison recounts how when he looked into the dog's eyes, he could tell exactly what the dog was thinking, which was "Please don't leave me here to die with strangers."  When the vet returned, Ellison stayed with his pet while the dosage was administered, held the dog while he expired, then went home and wept like a child.

It's a touching anecdote that serves as a sort of counterpoint to the main story, and although it is fleeting, the way the author is able to put himself into his dog's headspace as he nears the end of his life is both powerful and effective.  Garth Stein's book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, takes a similar tack, being a picture of life in a young family as viewed from floor-level by Enzo, a mutt of indeterminate heritage and lofty aspirations.

Enzo's master, Denny, is an aspiring race care driver, and one of Enzo's favourite activities is watching races, whether they are cockpit tapes of Denny's races watched by his side, or just replays on the Speed channel, which he loves.  As a narrator Enzo is compassionate, perceptive, insightful, and articulate.  He freely admits he is not like other dogs, and is only rarely prone to acting on instinct instead of forethought.  Indeed, he is regularly frustrated by the things he lacks, like thumbs, or a 'facile tongue', which leave him with only the crudest of gestures to get his points across.  Nothing he does is viewed as particularly miraculous by the humans in Enzo's life, and the book is delightfully short of the "and then I peed on his foot" sort of antics you might be expecting.

Much of the book deals with the illness that afflicts Denny's wife Eve, and how they and their daughter Zoe deal with it, and with each other.  Honestly, this sort of Oprah-fied NYT Best-Seller list fodder is not normally something I would feel compelled to read, but my sister had loaned it to Audrey, and Audrey had read it in a very short timeframe and suggested I try it out.

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that's why I'm here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

I'm old. And while I'm very capable of getting older, that's not the way I want to go out. Shot full of pain medication and steroids to reduce the swelling of my joints. Vision fogged with cataracts. Puffy, plasticky packages of Doggie Depends stocked in the pantry. I'm sure Denny would get me one of those little wagons I've seen on the streets, the ones that cradle the hindquarters so a dog can drag his ass behind him when things start to fail. That's humiliating and degrading. I'm not sure if it's worse than dressing up a dog for Halloween, but it's close. He would do it out of love, of course. I'm sure he would keep me alive as long as he possibly could, my body deteriorating, disintegrating around me, dissolving until there's nothing left but my brain floating in a glass jar filled with clear liquid, my eyeballs drifting at the surface and all sorts of cables and tubes feeding what remains. But I don't want to be kept alive. Because I know what's next. I've seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I've ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I've ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.

I've always felt almost human. I've always known that there's something about me that's different than other dogs. Sure, I'm stuffed into a dog's body, but that's just the shell. It's what's inside that's important. The soul. And my soul is very human.

I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life—there is so much I have gone through with the Swift family—but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember? Try to imprint what I know on my soul, a thing that has no surface, no sides, no pages, no form of any kind. Carry it so deeply in the pockets of my existence that when I open my eyes and look down at my new hands with their thumbs that are able to close tightly around their fingers, I will already know. I will already see.
(excerpt from http://www.garthstein.com/arr/excerpts.php)

By the second chapter, I was completely hooked.  I was not only intrigued about Enzo's family and their challenges, but by the dog himself, and his assertion that he would be reborn as a human, and how he sees his current role  as a sort of training or perhaps an audition for his future life as a biped.  His love of speed in general, and the insights into racing he learns at Denny's side give him a fantastic set of anecdotes and allegories showing the commonalities between auto racing and life: the balance between being in control and knowing when to let instinct or inertia have their head; the idea that "that which you manifest is before you"; the importance of position, and of situational awareness; and above all, how to progress at speed despite an uncertain grip on things, like a Formula 1 car in the rain, or a worried husband and father faced with tragic and trying circumstances.  After a collision that results in his placing last in a race, Denny replies to a comment that it was 'not his fault' by saying that he shouldn't have allowed himself to be put in a position where someone else's error could cost him the race.  Later on, when he applies this outlook to something tragic in his personal life, it does not feel strained or forced at all.

I was mid way though the book at about 11:00 last night, and thought I would put it away at the end of the chapter.  When a new challenge arose for Denny (and Enzo), I was unable to put the book down until I finished it just before 1:00 a.m.   The Art of Racing in the Rain is a fantastic book that you should read even if you don't have a wife or child, even if you don't particularly like dogs, even if you have zero interest in motorsports.  Viewing human lives through the eyes of a dog is a tremendous experience, and could probably be compared pretty favourably to science-fiction novels told from an 'alien' perspective.  I don't think it would be fair to call it a tear-jerker, but it is very affecting on an emotional level, especially for those of us who have ever conversed with the animals in our lives.  Garth Stein is a tremendously talented writer who deftly weaves light and dark elements together to create a gripping tale which is at once fantastic and yet at times horribly accessible.  In Denny, he has created one of the most realistic, compelling and admirable male characters I have ever encountered, and in Enzo, a truly memorable narrator.  If you are interested in quality prose or well-depicted humanity, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

1 comment:

  1. When we put Polly down, the four of us stayed with her. It was hard, especially for the kids, but we weren't going to let her go alone.
    Thanks for the review Stephen - will definitely give it a go.