Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of a young family in Seattle undergoing the trials and tribulations of everyday life (as severe as they can sometimes be) told from the perspective of Enzo, the family dog. 

Enzo's master is Denny Swift, an aspiring race car driver.  The plot (such as it is) revolves around Denny's struggle to break into the racing circuit while dealing with a gravely ill wife and an ugly legal battle for custody of his daughter.

The narrator, Enzo, is "different than other dogs" in that he can (apparently) understand not only basic commands but abstract human conceptions.  (He offers his opinions on everything from health insurance to the legal profession.)  He learned much of what he knows from watching television.

Although the other members of my group found the book enjoyable, I found it preposterous and boring.  Preposterous because, I'm sorry, the idea of a dog offering insights and opinions on matters that many humans don't even understand strains the "suspension of disbelief" too far.  Boring because I found Stein's prose to be wooden and colorless.

Here's a passage from the opening chapter:
We leave our apartment; the night is sharp, cool and breezy and clear. We only go down the block and back because my hips hurt so much, and Denny sees. Denny knows. When we get back, he gives me my bedtime cookies and I curl into my bed on the floor next to his. He picks up the phone and dials.

"Mike," he says. Mike is Denny's friend from the shop where they both work behind the counter. Customer relations, they call it. Mike's a little guy with friendly hands that are pink and always washed clean of smell. "Mike, can you cover for me tomorrow? I have to take Enzo to the vet again."

We've been going to the vet a lot recently to get different medicines that are supposed to help make me more comfortable, but they don't, really. And since they don't, and considering all that went on yesterday, I've set the Master Plan in motion.
Really? A dog with a Master Plan? 

Stein tends to get swept up in himself, frankly.  There are many scenes that are intended to evoke strong emotions, but there are very few that actually manage it.  (I did shed a tear when the dog died.  But I think I was just feeling a little blue anyway.)

The book is further burdened by some highly contrived situations that Stein was forced to concoct in order to include Enzo in the action.  It's a first-person narrative, after all.  But, a dog strapped into the passenger seat of a car that is speeding around a racetrack?  Come on!

Stein does offer some interesting insights into the science of race car driving.  I could have used a lot more of that and a lot less of his commentary on unrelated human absurdities.

My companions summarized this book as "a good beach read," but I think that's being charitable.  I didn't enjoy it.  In fact, I was annoyed by it.  Perhaps most telling, our conversation about the book lasted all of 10 minutes.  There just wasn't much to say about it.  Bummer.

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