Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

When a novel nears a state of over-hyping, I lay it aside until the dust settles, so I can judge it on my own. Sawtelle fits this bill perfectly; furthermore, it deserves the hype. This near-perfect story ranks with Cold Mountain as beautifully written, with interesting characters, a great plot – but with an interesting twist: the story parallels Shakespeare’s Hamlet in many ways.

I have not read a single review of this novel, but about a third of the way through the 566 pages, I began taking notes. I pulled a file I use to teach Hamlet, and reviewed that. The more I thought about it and the more I read, the more pieces of this double-sided jigsaw fell into place. I only had to decide how the story would play out. When I finished, I checked out a few book review sites and found several who had also noticed the connection. This novel explains completely why I do not read full reviews before I read a book. I thoroughly enjoy piecing these things out for myself.

So, I am not going to give you any clues. If you are moderately familiar with the play, dig through Sawtelle yourself. If not, read the play – I promise it will do you no harm – take notes on the characters, then read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

I will, however, dip into a quote or two to demonstrate the fluid prose which meanders along like a slow river gradually building volume until the rocks appear, the rapids and the falls. You will not be disappointed. Wroblewski writes early on,

“When the night came on, she stood in the outer kennel run listening to the spring peepers begin their cacophony and the bats flickering overhead and she looked at the frozen oculus of the moon as it rose above the trees and cast its blue radiance across the field.” (33)

Despite its length, the pageant-like prose flowed over me, and as the tension built, I began to read in larger and larger clumps. It was that difficult to put aside.

Gar and Trudy operate a dog kennel with meticulous breeding records dating back to Gar’s father, John Sawtelle, who bought the farm and the surrounding buildings. Gar’s brother, Claude, sold his share in the business to Gar and disappeared for a number of years. Trudy wants a child, and after several failed attempts, they have a son, Edgar. The child immediately bonds with one of the dogs, Almondine, and the boy quickly becomes involved in the family business. A thread of magic realism wends its way through the story involving Edgar’s relationship with the “Sawtelle Dogs,” as they came to be known, and other figures from the past.

The young Edgar loved walks around the farm with his dad, and Wroblewski describes these rambles magnificently.

“Their route started behind the garden, where the fence stood just inside the woods’ edge. Then they followed the fence-post riddled creek to the far corner of their property, where an ancient, dying oak stood, so thick and massive its bare black limbs threw full shade on the root-crossed ground. A small clearing surrounded the tree, as if the forest had stepped back to make room for it to perish. From there they bore east, the land sweeping upward and passing through sumac and wild blackberry and sheets of lime-colored hay. The last quarter mile they walked the road. It wasn’t unusual for Edgar’s father to go the whole way in silence, and when he was quiet, each step became the step of some earlier walk (spray of water from laurel branches; the musty scent of rotting leaves rising from their footfalls; crows and flickers scolding one another across the field), until Edgar could draw up a memory – maybe an invention – of being carried along the creek as an infant while Almondine bounded ahead, man and boy and dog passing through the woods like voyageurs.” (68-69)

That phrase – “man and boy and dog” -- would make a perfect twitter post describing this story.

Only one minor flaw prevents absolute perfection in Edgar Sawtelle. Wroblewski has a tendency to – on occasion – do a bit too much “telling” rather than showing. Most annoyingly, he occasionally “shows AND tells.” Despite this, I cannot bear to take away a half a star, so this is rated 4 and ¾ stars.

--Chiron, 6/6/10

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