At my core, I’m a cat person, but I adore the dogness of dogs and the unique relationship they can have with humans. And though it may sound strange, I love the humanity of dogs, their willingness to love us and to trust us (whether we deserve it or not).
It is not a surprise, therefore, that I enjoyed Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s told by a dog. It takes place in Seattle.
What is a surprise is how much I enjoyed it.
Seriously. This book is now on my Top Five list. As a reader, I loved it. As a writer, it taught me some lessons I’m ready to learn.
I was dismayed when I saw various websites list this title under Children’s Books, Juvenile Fiction, and Young Adult fiction. This is not a children’s book. Just because it has a dog as a narrator, do not think that this is all fluff and ball-chasing. I would not read this book to my school-age child. I would not recommend it for my tween-ager. Young Adult, yes, acceptable, but this book was not written with the intention of it being for Young Adults. It is an adult story, with adult themes. The voice of the narrator may be simple and innocent–Enzo is a dog, after all–but Enzo himself is neither simple nor innocent.
This is merely a marketing misstep, though, and the book is obviously doing fine despite the odd categorization.
So, what is so good about the book?
First and foremost, what sets this book apart is the voice. Told in first-person, using a mix of present and past tense, Stein has created a character voice that truly feels like a dog (albeit a grandly anthropomorphized one). Enzo sees our shared world differently in various ways, some of which he is aware. In other ways–in his sometimes simplistic calculus of motive and response, in his occasional dissociation of his own animal responses–he is quite oblivious to our fundamental differences. His enjoyment of things, be they movies or riding in a car, is uncomplicated and at times primal. So are his emotions.
This clarity of voice is something often missed in first-person narration, and yet is so crucial to the form. More than just stylistic choices, the voice of Enzo’s narration assists in the creation of his character; we learn of him through his word choice, his unique thoughts, and the way he describes his world. In my opinion, if you’re not going to do this, you don’t need (and shouldn’t use) the first-person form.
Atop this mixture of child and adult that is Enzo’s narration, Stein builds a story of complex relationships. With life and death, trust and betrayal, victory and loss, it is a story filled with raw emotional power made even more powerful by Enzo’s simplistic witnessing of these profound events. The structure of the book, with its short chapters that reveal the plot like snapshots in an album, reflects Enzo’s animal narration, but also distill each captured moment down to its basics.
Finally, Stein weaves through this book two disparate themes which by their contrast add greatly to the characters, the plot, and the resolution. One is Enzo’s love of television and documentaries, which has taught him that in some cultures, a dog can return to earth as a man, and Enzo wants this very much. The other, as Denny (Enzo’s owner) is a professional race driver, are the techniques and philosophies of the sport of car racing, but don’t think that this means the book is filled with gear-head jargon and discussions of torque and break-horsepower. Rather, it is the Zen of racing that drives this book, and how, win or lose, racing is a metaphor for life.
In the end, Stein gives us an incredibly human story, told by a dog who, despite seeing all our ugliness and maleficence, still admires us and someday hopes to be counted in our number.