I must admit that when a review copy of the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain arrived on my desk, I wasn’t optimistic.
Strike one, it is not only written in a dog’s voice, but the dog narrates the story in retrospect as he nears death. Other than in the hands of a master storyteller—Paul Auster in his compelling novel Timbuktu, or E.B.White in the enchanting Charlotte’s Web—such a species-overreaching device is prone to cloying pitfalls.
Strike two, the narrator-dog Enzo’s human companion, Denny, is a race car driver, so the racing theme—as suggested by the title—is not only an important metaphor, but also drives much of the book’s plot.Watching or reading about racing has never held any interest for me.
As it turns out, there was no strike three. In this third book by Garth Stein, a Seattle author, playwright and filmmaker, these seemingly disparate elements are so masterfully worked and blended that it didn’t take long to fully engage me, the very skeptical reader, in his dramatic story.
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The book begins with the very old Enzo reflecting on the twists and turns of his life and that of his beloved human, Denny Swift.Adopted by Denny from a farmer who claimed that his female Lab had accidentally mated with a Poodle, the prescient and plucky Enzo contends that his father was a Terrier because, as he says,“Terriers are problem-solvers.” This lineage distinction plays out throughout the book.
Soon after getting Enzo, Denny falls in love with Eve. They marry and have a child, Zoë, who’s born the day Enzo turns two and Denny is away racing in Daytona. Except for the loneliness that Enzo feels because Denny is spending more time pursuing his racing career, everything goes well for the young family in their early years. Enzo occupies himself by spending an inordinate amount of time watching TV and videos of memorable races (something he learned to do as a pup sitting on the sofa alongside Denny), as well as composing koanlike aphorisms, making doggish observations and bemoaning his lack of opposable thumbs and his inability to speak.
But when they come, downturns happen in quick succession. Eve becomes very ill and moves in with her protective parents, taking the child with her. Then Eve dies, and a battle ensues between Denny and his in-laws for custody of little Zoë.Through the ensuing tumultuous time, it is Enzo who remains Denny’s steadfast friend, and an honest witness to wrongs perpetrated against Denny.He also fulfills his promise to Eve to protect Zoë and watch over Denny.
The storyline occasionally borders on the incredulous and melodramatic, and there were times I wanted to put the book down because I felt that the drama just went over the top—could anyone possibly have as much bad luck as this Denny? Yet there was something so appealing and inviting about the voice of the scrappy, likeable and, yes, very believable Enzo that I read on.
By the book’s end, Enzo is dying, but he firmly believes that his dog-time on earth only means that in his next life he will be reborn as a human—a feat dear to his tenacious Terrier heart. This reader came away not only with a newfound respect for race car drivers and the mettle it takes to master the “art of racing in the rain,” but for Garth Stein’s ability to spin a compelling, entertaining and transporting story.