Book Review: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski

July 22, 2009

I’d had the Sawtelle book on my shelf for nearly a year before I read it. Not as a result of procrastination, no, I was saving it for a time when I wanted a sure-fire entertainer, something easy-peasy to rip through on a summer’s trip or sickbed afternoon.

Was it this? A barnstormer, yes. Easygoing? In that sense, much more intense than I expected.

The first few chapters, which could be filed under the notion of the protagonist’s inception and infanthood, are innocuous and dreamy. The stuff of your everyday, calming modern literature. Plus a tug on my most vulnerable literate-heartstring: the family saga, which I am a full bore sucker for, every time.

Then there is some dog-ness. This book is dog-rife. Though there is a noxious waft of Where-the-Red-Fern-Grows sappiness, the obsessive detail tends to bend more Steinbeck “Red Pony” as things go along. A non-dog person, I could still appreciate the deeply understood and researched minutiae about dog training, kenneling, and feeding. It works with the flow and rarely pokes out tediously.

Then things get more interesting. What I’m going to explain here is a BIT OF A SPOILER, but in an abstract sense only. I started realizing around a hundred pages in (and this is a tome–something on the order of 650 pages or so in my hardback copy) something in the structure of the story struck me. Wait a minute, I thought, Edgar’s mom’s name is Trudy? And his uncle…wait, his father? Poison? This is totally, like, Hamlet. A quick sojourn on the Internet proved that my hunch was correct. No wonder the tone reminded me of Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres.”

Maybe it is because Wroblewski appropriated a storyline that is so robust that it cannot fail, or maybe it is that he is gifted: whatever it is, this novel is mercilessly compelling. It had me in its clenches to the last page, though its denouement was not brief. It was ceaselessly interesting. Things kept happening. But Wroblewski is more than a plot man–there were passages of enviable beauty (that is, I wish I could write like that).

What cost it that last half star for me? Wroblewski seems to fall flat in the development of female characters and villains. Edgar’s mom and uncle performed actions that didn’t seem to have believable motives.

One of the better mainstream novels I’ve read in some time. Recommended.

4.5 stars
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