The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

wroblewski_story.jpgReading a book featured on the "bestseller" table at Borders is not a frequent experience for me. The last I can think of was Khaled Hosseini's superb A Thousand Splendid Suns. But there was something irresistibly presumptuous about a debut novelist transplanting Shakespeare's Hamlet to a dog-breeding farm in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

That one sentence almost says too much about the Daivd Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, considering how slavishly he adheres to the Hamlet framework, but there is no other way to describe it. Nevertheless, beware the dust jacket of this book, which could be Example #1 in my portfolio of book covers that ruin the novel's plot. They are getting to be as bad as Hollywood trailers.

For every successful reinterpretation of Shakespeare (think Kurosawa's Ran), several others fail miserably. Wroblewski has ambitiously endeavored to replay Hamlet's family drama in the Sawtelle household in the woods of northern Wisconsin, with a mute teenage protagonist. The first several chapters, which I think are the best in the book, tell the story of how the Sawtelle family originally came to occupy the land, how their project of engineering a new breed of dog was started, and how the current occupants, Gar and Trudy, endured great pains in their struggle to start a family before the birth of Edgar.

Dogs play an integral part in the book, and one of Wroblewski's big gambles is the devotion of several chapters to the perspective of Almondine, Edgar's faithful canine companion. I was surprised at how successful this proved, never falling into gimmick. From the earliest moments of Edgar's life, Almondine plays a central role in connecting this boy to the world:

The baby had no voice. It couldn't make a sound.

Almondine began to pant. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, and as she looked on--and saw his mother continue to sleep--she finally understood: the thing that was going to happen was that her time for training was over, and now, at last, she had a job to do.

And so Almondine gathered her legs beneath her and broke her stay.

She crossed the room and paused beside the chair, and she became in that moment, and was ever after, a cautious dog, for suddenly it seemed important that she be right in this; and looking at the two of them there, one silently bawling, one slumped in graceful exhaustion, certainty unfolded in her the way morning light fills a north room. She drew her tongue along his mother's face, just once, very deliberately, then stepped back. His mother startled awake.

Right from the start, Edgar's life is intertwined with the Sawtelle dogs, as they are called, and Wroblewski's ability to give Almondine a believable inner monologue adds immeasurably to the portrayal of all the novel's canines. Wroblewski's other great success is his portrayal of Edgar and his sign language. It comes across so naturally that the only times we remember that Edgar can't speak is when Edgar remembers it, when circumstances lay bare the cost of a voiceless life:

He burst into the kitchen and yanked the phone off its hook. He stood for a moment, unsure of what to do. He pulled the zero around on the dial and waited. Almondine was in the kitchen with him; he couldn't remember her running alongside to the house or even following him down from the mow.

After the second ring a woman's voice came on the line.

"Operator."

He was already trying to make the words. He moved his lips. A sigh came out of him, thin and dry.

Having succeeded in credible portrayals of the mind of a dog and the linguistics of a mute boy, Wroblewski clears two of the three major hurdles he places before himself. The last hurdle is the whole scale relocation of a 16th-century Danish royal drama to 1970s rural Wisconsin. In some ways, Wroblewski achieves beyond expectations. The portrayal of Edgar in particular, is tremendous. Hamlet is a Danish prince who flirts with insanity and revenge throughout the play. That Wroblewski plausibly puts a mute American teenager in the same role is a noteworthy accomplishment:

He tried to sort out his feelings. There was the desire to run; there was the desire to stay and put himself in front of Claude the moment he returned; there was the desire to take his mother's explanations at face value; above all, there was the desire to forget everything that had happened, an aching desire for everything normal and familiar, for the routine of the kennel and reading at night and making dinners, just the two of them, when he could almost believe that his father had stepped out momentarily to check a new litter and would be right back.

But at some point, the faithfulness to Hamlet become servile; match the character to their Shakespearean counterpart and they will try to play their role. Yet not all of the Wisconsin actors live up to their Danish ancestors. Claude (King Claudius) never achieves the necessary ambiguity of character, and the creativity of the Almondine character suffers when wedged into Ophelia's part. The entire dog-breeding project, so well-established in the early chapters with Edgar's father, falls by the wayside when it fails to further any Hamlet parallels. Wroblewski's commitment to Shakespearean reconstruction comes at a cost.

This is a four-star book with a two-star finish. I didn't expect a happy ending; I have read Hamlet, after all. Nor did I need one. But this novel's conclusion lacks respect. Respect for the reader who has traversed 550 pages, respect for a protagonist whose journey deserved more than a four-page chapter, treated as a loose end to be quickly tied up. A tragic Shakespearean ending for a 14-year old mute boy requires more finesse than Wroblewski musters. The pacing is just wrong; this novel would be improved immensely if fifty pages were cut from the middle and expended on a worthy finale. A real missed opportunity.