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New York Times reviews The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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By David Wroblewski.

Reviewed by Mike Peed in the New York Times

Near the beginning of the fifth act of “Hamlet,” just a few lines after he fondles Yorick’s skull, the Prince of Denmark grows distraught at the sight of Ophelia’s burial and avows he’ll do anything to avenge the death of his love – including eat a crocodile. When his boasts are taken for psychosis, Hamlet threatens, “Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.” Here, David Wroblewski, in his ambitious first novel, uses the framework of Shakespeare’s tragedy to grant that patient dog its day.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is not alone, of course, in its reanimation of “Hamlet” (see Matt Haig’s recent novel “The Dead Fathers Club,” for example), but it is surely the first to populate it with so many hounds. Set chiefly in the early 1970s, near the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin, the novel tells the story of the Sawtelle family, which over the generations has strived to establish, through an experimental amalgam of breeding, training and mysticism, the ne plus ultra of the companion dog. The goal is to produce free-willed, “choice making” creatures, ones that, having “learned that a certain expression on a person’s face meant that something interesting lay behind them, or in another room,” will pursue the action best for both themselves and their owners. Wroblewski, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and until recently worked as a software engineer, wrote his novel over the course of a decade, and he takes as much inspiration from Darwin and Mendel as he does from Kipling and London. The result is a sprawling, uneven work, at times brilliant but elsewhere sentimental and tedious.

After several miscarriages, Trudy Sawtelle gives birth to Edgar, a boy who, like the family’s dogs, can hear but cannot speak. The source of Edgar’s disability is never understood – it is one of the book’s many mysteries – but the muteness enables an almost supernatural connection between him and the animals. Edgar is smart, adamantly curious about both the natural and human world, and the language he creates is a resourceful patchwork of learned and invented signs. (With striking effect, Wroblewski renders Edgar’s statements without quotation marks.)

Author David Wroblewski, on his website, links to a National Geographic video of a Border Collie with extraordinary cognitive skills.


Written by aterrier

August 2, 2008 at 4:59 am

Dogs in ads for Russian vodka

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mentioned by Don DeLillo in Underworld

Written by aterrier

July 27, 2008 at 2:18 am