Monday, April 19, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

For a book "written" by a dog about NASCAR racing, this book is oddly ubiquitous. Maybe it's just oddly ubiquitous in general. A woman approached my mother at church and insisted she read it so they could talk about it. I've seen it prominently displayed in book stores and at Target (which doesn't carry very many books, so each one you see there is pretty popular). My book club chose it as well. I'm now free to post about it, because we discussed it yesterday.

The story: Dog "Enzo" is owned by a young man who is apparently a talented race car driver, and who works at an auto repair shop for his day job. Their bachelor nights are spent watching video of famous races as Denny Swift studies the tricks of the masters. Then Denny falls in love and so Eve enters their lives, followed soon by their daughter Zoe. Things happen: they buy a house with a yard, Enzo gets accidentally locked indoors over a three day weekend, Denny begins to be noticed in the racing world.

All is not well, however, as Enzo smells Eve's illness that later turns out to be brain cancer. Eve goes home to her parents' home to die, and Zoe goes with her. Denny bears this stoically, spending his days with Eve, coming home to Enzo and an otherwise empty house. When Eve dies, her parents fight for custody of Zoe, claiming that Eve wanted them to do so.

Denny is disadvantaged financially, of course, and the grandparents use every weapon they have, including an alleged sexual assault on a minor--one of Eve's young cousins tried to come onto Denny and got mad when she was rejected. Denny, amazingly, never gets angry--he applies the lessons of racing to life, and those lessons lead him through the morass of family dysfunction and grief.

Lessons like--don't get angry when somebody makes a mistake that knocks you out of the race, because it's your fault you were in the way. Always finish the race, because even if you don't like the outcome you have a better result than if you quit. The car goes where your eyes go, so make certain your eyes are in the right place.

Of course, there is a dog on the cover, and are there any books with a dog on the cover where the dog DOESN'T die? Apparently not. You are well aware this is coming, as the first chapter begins with Enzo ridden with arthritis and planning his own reincarnation. Yes, because Enzo is apparently Buddhist, and he plans to come back to earth as a human being. So at the end, when Enzo does die, it's not too sad because he's the narrator and he's looking forward to being human.

No, that does not qualify as a spoiler. This does:

By the end, Denny has gotten his daughter back, gotten a dream job working and driving for an Italian car manufacturer in Italy. And a racing fan asks to meet the Famous Denny Swift, because he five year old son, Enzo, is a huge racing fan. Oh yeah, they went there.

As a book, it's not terrible, and can be affecting, but is the dog narrator really anything more than a gimmick? Hard to give it any props, since the use of the dog seems to allow Stein to avoid some of the harder parts of writing the book. Complicated human dynamics? Rendered shallowly, because the dog doesn't understand those. Esoteric legal procedings? Evaded, because dogs aren't allowed in courtrooms.

It's hard to point to anything that the dog-narrator does to improve the book, since it's such a convenient way to gloss over any literary weaknesses--which is itself a literary weakness. Had Stein written it as a straight third-person omniscient narration, the characters would have had to stand on their own strengths and weaknesses, whereas with a dog narrator, you get a sort of unconditional acceptance and cheering on of The Owner that isn't necessarily supported by the book itself.

I was impressed with the way Stein handled the dog's death--a lovely bit of writing in which the elderly and infirm dog finds himself able to run through a beautiful field, never tiring, while he hears Denny's voice telling him it's okay to go now. It wasn't maudlin, or manipulative. It was Just Right. To have tacked on the happy-ever-afterlife of the little boy meeting his racing hero wasn't strictly necessary, but wasn't an embarrassment either.

The other two women who read this book for book club liked it a bit less than I did, finding a lot of the racing information boring, even as they recognized its role as metaphor. Yet even I would be unlikely to recommend it to someone looking for good book--unless they were looking for a book about NASCAR, narrated by a dog. Then this is the top of the recommendation list.

Okay, so the video shows what I believe is called Formula One racing. I don't think that is what Denny actually does in the book, but what the heck. If someone is looking for a dog-narrated book about Formula One racing, I'm still recommending this one.


Lori Baumgartner said...

I completely respect your opinion, but heartily disagree with it. Of course maybe it is because I am an avid animal lover, and will read anything that has to do with animals. I loved this book; in fact it is my very favorite book. I found it to be profoundly philosophical (also a very philosophical person), and deep. Yes, it had a dog as a narrator, but to me, that made it all the more charming. I know nothing about racing, yet found the racing segments to be analogies related to real life, if one looked at them in that way. I never got bored with the racing segments.

I felt Enzo was a wonderful character, and felt the book was different. I have adapted many of the quotes to use in my own life. My favorite is: "That which we manifest is before us." That quote is so true. "Your car goes where your eyes go" is just another way to say, "that which we manifest is before us."

I am studying to be a high school English teacher, and if there is any way conceivable that I can have my students read this book, I will.

Again, I respect your opinion, and agree to disagree. We just seemed to have very differing view points on this book.

Christian Evans said...

I agree with Lori. Loved loved loved this book. I'm a car guy so that's why I read it in the first place, but the reason I didn't put it down and read straight through the night was because I was enamored with Enzo and his simple yet profound way of viewing the world. And I'm not at all an animal person.

Just to be sure I wasn't crazy for loving a book this much, I had my wife read it later and she felt the same way. (She is neither a car nor dog person) "The car goes where the eyes go" has been directing philosophy in our life ever since. In fact it's the name of our blog.

Marlene Detierro said...

This book will tear at you in so many ways and on so many levels. Without giving too much away let me just say that I haven't felt compelled to tear up so often by a book in a long time. Reading The Art of Racing in the Rain is like sitting through Old Yeller as a young boy and not crying. But don't let me scare you off. The Art of Racing is a book you've got to read, especially if you love dogs (or animals in general). With a wonderful storyline and characters you become attached to this book is cathartic.

Garth Stein is to be congratulated on writing a book that is sure to become a classic

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Marc Brown said...

I too enjoyed this book and have read the PG version to my young son. One thing to note regarding the review, this book is not about NASCAR race car driver at all. It's about an exotic car salesman who is also a race car driver but doesn't get his "big break" until later in life when he joins the European Formula One racing circuit and wins a race.

Eugene Pierson said...

And while the character development may be, well, less developed, the actual writing itself has merit, has value. And although I have no particular interest in NASCAR or racing in general--as I do not even have my license yet, while most my age do--it proved substantial, not superfluous, not over-extensive. To write any good book, one must possess knowledge in a certain field, or several fields, either by outside research or inside knowledge.