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By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By David Wroblewski
Ecco, 2008

It’s always the season for sequels on the bestseller list (or tetradecaquels in the case of Janet Evanovich) and on this fact readers and publishers seem to have arrived at a happy accord. New books aren’t cheap, and no amount of offshore drilling will ever make them so. If people are going to hand over a couple hours’ wages to get them, they want to know exactly what they’re paying for. They want a new episode, not a new series—a spinoff might be acceptable. Trying books you don’t know everything about in advance is a luxury given to the top ten percent. The rest of the country buys their investments low-risk, eats their steaks medium-well, and votes for the incumbent. They feel they’ve been priced out of improvisation.

That’s the best I can do to explain the barnacle presence of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle on the bestseller list. It’s a longwinded, laboriously workshopped piece of neo-folk art, an orphaned Oprah pick that’s been lovingly clutched to the bosoms of thousands of book clubs. It’s a debut and the only novel in the top ten list that will be filed as “literary fiction,” but what it shares with the others is the solemn pledge of predictability: the plot is a rehash of Hamlet.

Wroblewski has made some important modifications, of course, which everyone will be pleased with. The problem with Hamlet has always been the hero: he’s not lovable enough. He’s moody and sarcastic and depressingly morbid; he talks a good game but doesn’t come through in the clutch; plus, he’s getting fat. Wroblewski fixes all that and delivers a story of unmitigated victimhood. Edgar Sawtelle is fourteen years old and mute. He never thrusts a sword through anyone (he shuts a door on a man who proceeds to tumble down a stairwell) and he never drives an innocent girl to madness (he’s briefly unkind to his dog).

Edgar is raised in a genuinely charming idyll, located fuzzily (as all idylls must be) in Wisconsin in the 1950s. His parents are dog breeders. He’s accompanied at all times by his dog Almondine (who gets a few very moving first-person chapters). The unique sign language he invents to communicate with his parents and the dogs he trains sweetens the sense of contented isolation and self-sufficiency. A life occupied by a litter of puppies is as rich as any imaginable:

Doctor Papineau, when he visited, could never keep [the puppies] straight, but to Edgar they were so different it was hard to believe they came from the same litter. He could tell them apart by their movements alone, the sound of their footfalls. Essay always pushed to see what she could get away with, waiting until he looked away to bolt. Tinder, the most rambunctious, would break a stay just because one of his littermates looked at him with a glint in his eye. Baboo was the opposite: once in a stay, he would sit forever. He made up for his delay coming off the long line with his love of retrieves. He trotted back to Edgar again and again with the target in his mouth, an aw-shucks swagger rocking his hindquarters.

They were, each of them, brilliant, frustrating, stubborn, petulant. And Edgar could watch them move—just move—all day.

This is wonderful stuff, and the reader may well feel that the lovely story of the joys and trials of a family of dog breeders would be sufficient, too, but Wroblewski has bigger plots to purloin. Edgar’s father Gar dies suddenly, reportedly from an aneurysm but actually at the hands of his brother—Claude!—and when Edgar and his mother find themselves overwhelmed by the rigors of keeping the business afloat, Claude maneuvers his way into the household. It’s not really ever clear why Claude murders his brother, except that if The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is going to reenact Hamlet, he pretty much has to. Edgar’s mother Trudy explains early on that “This thing between your father and Claude. It’s old, from since they were children,” and all Edgar’s father’s ghost can say, from the insightful (and italicized) position of the afterlife, is “Whatever he’s wanted, he’s taken, ever since he was a child.” You can understand someone committing a fratricide for a kingdom, but a kennel?

The rest of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a dutiful procession through the main events of the play. The Mousetrap scene, in which Edgar trains his dogs to act out his father’s murder in front of Claude, is marvelous—Wroblewski loves writing about dogs and he’s great at it—but the other pages are still covered by translucent drafter’s blueprints. Here’s Polonius, the meddler, here’s Laertes, the avenging son, and so on. (The Laertes figure isn’t introduced until page 489 and he’s as puzzled as the rest of us about why he’s supposed to kill a fourteen-year-old boy.) Wroblewski is only at pains to apply himself when there’s a chance his characters might become complicated and unsympathetic. Trudy, for instance, has let a snake like Claude into her bed because “Claude’s memories of Gar released her from the haunting she felt”:

How could she explain any of that to Edgar? How could she say that she needed Claude because Claude knew Gar and wasn’t destroyed by his death? How could she say that when she missed Gar most she talked to Claude and he told her stories and for a moment, she remembered, really remembered, that Gar had existed. How could she explain that she could get out of bed in the morning if there was a chance she might touch Gar again?

It’s a close call, but fortunately there’s nothing here so discreditably human as pragmatism or credulity or lust; Trudy’s tragic flaw is excessive love of her first husband. Similarly, Shakespeare’s irritating preoccupation with unanswerable questions about death and immortality has been smoothed over by a generous caulking of occult (but always karmically benevolent) mysticism. “Someone hands across corn flakes, soup—nothing,” explains a grocery store sibyl named Ida before she reads Edgar’s fortune. “Then they’ll hand over some little thing and I’ll get a jolt off it, it’s so loaded up. It’s not a message. People will tell you it’s a message, but they’re wrong. What it is, you pay attention to it long enough, you can start to read it. Read the juice.” But there’s never a doubt that there’s a fundamental justice governing the cosmic beverage, and readers will feel confident that all the dogs go to heaven as well.

Wroblewski is not yet a practitioner of the art of omission. There are numerous beautiful details flecked throughout this long novel (“By then the yard was in full morning light, the lawn a beaded pelt of water”), but there’s also a truly scarifying amount of filler. A lot of people have bought The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I strongly doubt many have read it all the way through. I was gamely plowing along until about page 350, when Edgar runs away from home and spends a hundred pages living with a kindly fellow named Henry (Horatio, sort of). Granted, Act IV of Hamlet is a little slow, too, but this is the way that Edgar and Henry bond their friendship:

“Darn it,” [Henry] said. “I need a twelve-letter word meaning ‘butterfly-like.’ Starts with L.”

Edgar looked at Henry. He picked up a pencil and wrote, Lepidopteral, and pushed the paper across the table.

Henry turned back to the crossword. “Nice,” he said. “What can you get for a…let’s see…six-letter word for ‘echo.’ Ends with R-B.”

Edgar thought for a moment and, beneath his previous entry, wrote reverb.

“Yep. Yep. That works again,” Henry said. “Aha—lentil!” he cried, and filled in another row.

I happened to read this on the subway sitting next to a person doing the daily crossword, and at that moment the boredom of my real life fused with the boredom of the book to create a kind of Philip Glass-ian two-note fugue that pinged away at the back of my head. I skimmed to the end after that.

While reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle it’s easy to imagine the transcription of a book club gathering devoted to discussing it. “Did you notice that Almondine is portrayed as the Ophelia character, and the first thing Edgar discovers when he returns home is her grave?”—things like that. The connections between the novel and the play are so gratifyingly linear that the book itself becomes a puzzle—a cryptogram solvable even for readers who haven’t read Hamlet since high school, or only seen the movie. This is a novel you figure out, and that’s almost guaranteed to make for a fun evening with the other ladies (and token guys) in the group. You pay your hour’s wage, you get a pleasant evening with friends in the bargain. Think publishers don’t have your number?

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.

On to #5, Swan Peak by James Lee Burke