The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Fourth Estate, 576pp, £12.99
Dialogue being the gearbox of a novel, David Wroblewski risked a bumpy ride with a first novel whose adolescent hero's throat has left him mute from birth. Edgar Sawtelle's time is, moreover, spent largely among dogs, which communicate so much by a look in their eyes. Although they are subjected throughout to rigorous training sessions, the narrative is never called to heel, but takes a sparse human population across a corner of remote Wisconsin and 576 large pages. Not only did more people (32 of them) assist Wroblewski with the work than populate it, but there are also echoes of Hamlet and Kipling.
This might suggest a leaning towards the wilder excesses of the creative writing school, four of which were involved during a decade's labour. Still, Stephen King "flat-out loved it", and it all hints at silent horror on the plains, albeit of a more limpid variety than he purveys. Edgar is the son of Gar and Trudy, his early years passing at their kennel, where dogs are bred with some regard - it emerges - for the semi-mystical notions evolved by a now-dead grandfather whose correspondence surfaces, and includes reference to the famous case of the Japanese dog that every evening went to the station in the hope of welcoming home his dead owner. As for Edgar, he finds particular solace in his faithful bitch Almondine, but when disaster strikes, he is powerless to call for the help that could avert his father's death. Meanwhile, to his chagrin, Gar's feckless brother Claude has reappeared, army and jail making him all the more eager to avail himself of business and, as it turns out, the vacant spot in Trudy's bed.
A paternal ghost appears, and "from behind a feathered break of clouds, the moon emerged, a gleaming sickle of bone as pointed as the syringe beside him". That device plays a part in a plot, submerged beneath description of which the metaphorical reference to a sickle moon is an uncommonly brief example.
There follow nine pages with only four lines of dialogue, rather more of which are addressed by Trudy to the dogs than in her son's direction. It is typical of Wroblewski's narrative that Edgar then reflects that he could have told her "about what he'd seen that night past, but it was as though she knelt in some place visible to him but unreachable by words. He thought if only he waited she might notice the difference in him. Maybe in the world itself."
The phrase "he thought" invariably exiles readers from the workings of a character's brain. It all becomes at some remove - now explained, now shown - even though Wroblewski palpably intends to assimilate one into an etiolated world where, some time in the Seventies, the hours pass slowly. Invariably, that almost-happening, smooth progress is jarred by gratingly solipsistic reflection. Even a chapter told from Almon dine's point of view informs us that "she had learned, in her life, that time lived inside of you. You are time, you breathe time. When she'd been young, she'd had an insatiable hunger for more of it, though she hadn't understood why."
If that dog appears to have alleviated Wisconsin winters with Proust, Wroblewski does have a way with description. "Edgar quieted them and walked to the pen that held the two dogs to be placed. Singer was a gloss russet male with an imposing stance but an easygoing demeanour. Indigo was petite for a Sawtelle dog and as if dipped in ink, except for a blaze of cream on her chest and another swirl across her hips. Edgar drew the slicker brush from his back pocket and went over them one last time. Indigo's coat was fine and luxurious when brushed up. The dogs stomped in the straw and panted under his brush. Singer protested the delay with a deep moan."
Well-observed and perfectly paced, light on the adjectives, that is writing from which more of the novel could have benefited on its slow-burning way to so hasty a conflagration that it is as if Wroblewski had wondered what next to do with it all - and remembered that the lurking Jacobean spirit himself had a habit of thus littering a final scene.
Rather than create a tantalising story to which his oddball crew could have been so well suited, their behaviour echoed by the attendant animals, Wroblewski has fallen victim to that American propensity to myth and enigma: the landscape becomes so overarching a character that any others are reduced to ciphers - a problem that bedevilled Donna Tartt's Secret History. Wroblewski's clanking gears risk letting his hefty vehicle fall from the clutches of even those readers who have long wanted an epic novel, dogs at its centre. Instead, they could fall back on one of the most brilliant stories ever written: Henry Lawson's "The Loaded Dog".