I will always appreciate this book for it’s opening chapter. I gave it a shot one night, curious if the large print copy I had found at the local Goodwill would help me read faster. I wanted to start and finish a book at some point, I thought, and why not this?
When I read this quote, it struck me for obvious reasons: not just because I love animals (well, most of them) but because I work with students that often have to use some form of gesture to communicate what they don’t have the vocabulary for. I think we’ve come in contact with someone who feels this way:
“Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.” (1)
I finished that first chapter full of awe and wonder. The story, told from the perspective of the dog at the center, managed to escape that cutesy twee feeling you get from narrative overreaches. I could hear this dog’s voice – and it was far more interesting than any humans’ I had heard in a while. So I told everyone about this book – on the first chapter alone. I knew I was probably overselling it, but I didn’t care. That first chapter. Damn.
But the story continues beautifully until about halfway through the book – that’s where the elegant tone Stein has so well-crafted is occasionally threatened by some rather cartoonish characters. He etches in the details of the owner, his wife, and his daughter through the particular lens of this incredibly philosophical dog. They are spare, but they leave you room to imagine. When he introduces the grandparents and some minor characters who take up the second part of the story, however, the balance is threatened. They feel like characters from a different, far-less subtle story. They do, however, provide an obstacle that the characters we side with must overcome. If there’s anything that works well about the dramatic characterization, it’s that our immediate hatred towards them makes us pull that much more for the characters we care about.
I also want to give credit to Stein for descriptions of what it’s like to race in the rain. Part of what gives the dog’s owner, a race car driver, an advantage over other drivers is his ability to drive well in the rain, something that many drivers tend to struggle with. The descriptions of racing here are so gracefully detailed, without become too much, that you feel you’re in the car yourself. It’s a great way to take something that could easily be an overwrought metaphor, and commit to it with detail and sincerity. It works beautifully.
In the end, this book isn’t nearly as sappy as I expected. I finished it – which felt like an accomplishment in itself. But your enjoyment with this book will depend on what you demand of your stories. If you want a simple, (melo)dramatic story with some great grace notes thrown in and told from the perspective of a dog, then this is a book for you.