Friday, May 15, 2009

Like Hamlet, With Dogs

Image from

Well, I finished all 566 pages of that sucker. Edgar Sawtelle is ready to go back to the library. I feel obliged to warn readers that this post contains spoilers, although the book jacket should come with a similar warning.

When I told my sister that I was reading it, she asked if that wasn't the one that was supposed to be like Hamlet with dogs. I'd say that's an excellent brief description of the book. But there's nothing brief about this one.

To dive right in: Edgar Sawtelle...well, there are two Edgar Sawtelles, but the protagonist of the book is a mute boy (but not deaf) whose family raises their very own breed of dog in rural Wisconsin. The original Hamlet struck me as an outgoing sort before his family tragedies, with a girlfriend and several close male friends. Edgar Sawtelle, in contrast, was an island. At one point, we're told that he had the ability to make friends, but for the most part, he stayed close to home. Close to his lifelong dog companion Almondine and his parents, Trudy (get it?) and Edgar Sr. Edgar's world is turned on its ear when Edgar's long-lost brother Claude (now do you get it?) returns to the fold.

When Shakespeare's Hamlet opens, the murder and the wedding have already taken place. I'd always wondered how things got to that point. Why did Gertrude jump at the chance to marry Claudius? Was it just to preserve her status and the kingdom, or did she actually care for him? What were things like between Claudius and Hamlet Sr. growing up? Was it easy for Claudius to kill him? Did Claudius's reaction at the play stem from fear of being caught, or genuine remorse? Wroblewski had a chance to play with all that a bit in this book. He chose not to. We get fits and starts of it: that Claude and Edgar never got along, that Claude used to drink and minister to fighting dogs...that's about it. That portion of the book is rather dreamy...and long.

Hamlet is always accused of being indecisive. But I always felt his inaction is perfectly understandable given the circumstances. He had knowledge of a crime that would blow his family and kingdom apart without any hope of proof. What the hell do you do in a situation like that? Young Edgar has it even worse, for at least other people saw the ghost of Hamlet Sr., even if they weren't privy to the accusatory conversation. Edgar was the sole witness to his father's return. Like Hamlet, he decides that an oblique accusation, unintelligible to anyone who wasn't guilty, is the way to go. The chips fall from there, just as they did in Shakespeare's version. And I'd remind anyone expecting a rather heartwarming tale about dogs how the original Hamlet ended.

Overall, I didn't care for this one much. My copy of the play of Hamlet weighs in at around 300 pages and includes several critical essays. This book was 566 pages long, and very, very slow moving at times. Since Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, I knew what was going to happen throughout. Unlike some other books I've read recently where the ending was a foregone conclusion, there wasn't enough for me in the journey to keep me from tapping my foot.

The best parts of the book are the parts about the care, training and raising of the Sawtelle dogs. We get just a few pages through the eyes of faithful Almondine, Young Edgar's best friend and keeper since birth. Most of the main characters from Hamlet have a counterpart here. Almondine appears in the role of arguably the most tragic and sympathetic figure, Ophelia. It's hard not to feel sorry for either character as you watch their worlds unravel around them and their charmed lives turn overnight into something hellish. Almondine is actually one of the stronger characters in the book. Everyone else is hard to get a sense of. I felt particularly that Trudy's actions didn't fit her character: the strong, independent trainer of dogs and survivor of multiple foster homes and miscarriages crawling in bed with her late husband's brother? siding with him over her own son? unable to step in and stop the inevitable ending of things?

I'm always a little surprised when I don't like something that's so critically acclaimed. The back of the book has blurbs from a lot of well-respected authors, and one of my favorites, Richard Russo, was actually mentioned in the acknowlegements. He liked this book and I didn't? I guess that's the shape of things. Even setting him aside, this book (as I said in a previous post) has been absolutely everywhere this year. It was one of Oprah's selections. You can buy it at stores where the next most serious literary work in their inventory contains 397 ways to please your man. It's a book club favorite. But it's not one of mine. As always, though, I welcome dissenting opinions in the comments.