Reviewed October 9, 2010.
Harper, 2008. 321 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fiction
I fully meant to read this book when it first came out, and I'm sure I had it checked out, but somehow it never made it to the top of the pile. So when the Fairfax County Public Library chose it for the 2010 All Fairfax Reads book, I decided it was high time to read it, and to make sure it was on the top of the pile, since with plenty of holds, I wouldn't be able to renew it. I ended up reading it in two nights, and just loved it. I wish I'd read it sooner.
A friend of mine said she didn't want to read it because she heard the dog dies in the end. That's true, but you know that's what he wants from the very first few pages, so it didn't make me sad.
Here's how Enzo, the dog telling the story, puts it, right at the beginning:
I'm old. And while I'm very capable of getting older, that's not the way I want to go out.... I don't want to be kept alive. Because I know what's next. I've seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I've ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I've ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.
I've always felt almost human. I've always known that there's something about me that's different than other dogs. Sure, I'm stuffed into a dog's body, but that's just the shell. It's what's inside that's important. The soul. And my soul is very human.
I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life -- there is so much I have gone through with the Swift family -- but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember?
Enzo then tells us the story of his life with the Swift family. Denny Swift, a race car driver, particularly good at racing in the rain, picked Enzo out from a pile of puppies at a farm.
Enzo was Denny's companion. They studied racing videos together. Enzo was there when Denny fell in love, got married, and had a daughter. Then he was there when Denny's wife got sick. He saw all that Denny went through, and wished he could tell what he'd seen and make things right.
The story is beautifully told and so touching. Enzo loves these people and does all he can to help them through an extremely difficult time.
The unusual perspective of the dog narrator never seems like a gimmick. Instead, it's all the more poignant because Enzo sees injustice, but suffers from the lack of a tongue made for speaking and opposable thumbs.
I got to hear Garth Stein speak at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on September 19th. He was a very entertaining speaker, and fun to look at, too!
When he talked about how he got the idea for this book, he revealed that he actually saw a video where it explained that in Mongolia, there is a belief that dogs are on their way to reincarnating as humans. He also told about how much trouble he had getting the book published. His agent said that he couldn't possibly sell a book narrated by a dog, so he fired his agent. But then he couldn't find anyone who thought differently -- until he met an author who had written a book narrated by a crow! That author's agent loved the book!
And I have to admit, if you just say it's a book narrated by a dog, it sounds like a gimmick. But this is pulled off beautifully. Garth Stein treated Enzo as a human soul with limitations -- He could only speak with gestures, and he couldn't manipulate things with his paws. But he had a great heart and saw Denny going through the fire but emerging victorious.