by Jan Baughman
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-153793-6, 321 pages, $14.99.
(Swans - May 17, 2010) You have got to meet Enzo, a lab-terrier mix and humanitarian/philosopher in the body of a dog who narrates the amazing novel The Art of Racing in the Rain. Enzo, it goes without saying, is named after Enzo Ferrari by his adoptive human Denny Swift, an aspiring race car driver whose name would seem contrived, except racing fans are reminded of current drivers Scott Speed and Will Power, who like Denny were destined by their names. But you don't have to be a racing fan or even a dog lover to appreciate this book. It's all about humanity and being the best that one can be while navigating the twists and turns of life, on or off the racetrack.
While Enzo enjoys his dogness, he is constantly frustrated by the physical limitations imposed upon him. He is an introspective dog with an insatiable thirst for knowledge who struggles with the conflict between his human desires and his canine instincts. He wants a tongue that will allow him to chew food properly, as humans do, yet he can't help but eat too quickly at every meal. A human tongue would also allow him to articulate his thoughts without the constraints of the limited gestures to which canines are confined. And he'd give anything for opposable thumbs. He believes that the dog's dewclaw is a pre-emergent thumb that man has selectively bred out so as to keep dogs from evolving into dexterous mammals that could become superior to man. Enzo wants nothing more than to be a man, and he begins his narrative as an old and arthritic dog, ready to pass and let Denny be free to reach his full potential, with the hopes of reaching his as a result.
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.
A friend recommended this book to me when our beloved Priam died. She had recently lost her two dogs, and coincidentally had adopted one who came with the name "Enzo." I took her advice and began reading, but on the first few tries I could not get past the first chapter. It struck too close to home with Priam, who like Enzo was a fine actor (or so he thought), putting his best foot forward when I was around yet suffering from seizures when I was not. In contrast, Enzo plays the part of the sick dog so that Denny will let him go, and Denny returns home from work one day to find him lying in a pool of urine.
"What happened, kid?" he asks.
Gestures can't explain.
"Can you get up?", Denny asks.
I try and I scramble. My heart takes off, lunges ahead because no, I can't. I panic. I thought I was just acting, but I really can't get up. Shit. Life imitating art.
The narrative turns to Enzo's infancy, his speculations about who fathered him, his adoption by Denny, and the deep bond they formed as Denny began to teach him the fine points of racing, which Enzo assimilates as an allegory to navigating life. Enzo passed the hours watching TV -- he readily admits he watches too much -- while Denny was at work in the auto shop. Whether the SPEED Channel, the Weather Channel, or National Geographic, he couldn't absorb enough knowledge about the world, and when the two of them were together they studied tapes of Denny's races. Denny describes the art of racing in the rain, and Enzo ponders the lesson:
"That which you manifest is before you. ... If I intentionally make the car do something then I can predict what it's going to do. In other words, it's only unpredictable if I'm not...possessing... it."
I will never tire of watching tapes with Denny. He knows so much, and I have learned so much from him. He said nothing more to me; he continued watching his tapes. But my thoughts turned to what he had just taught me. Such a simple concept, yet so true: that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.
Things began to change for Enzo when Denny married Eve and their daughter Zoë was born, diminishing his status in Denny's life. Enzo sensed when Eve became ill -- he smelled it -- but his physiologic limitations prevented him from communicating the problem, so he did his best to be the loving, protective, and understanding companion who allowed Zoë to dress him up like a bumblebee while the family dealt with the complications and unimaginable obstacles that nearly destroyed Denny's life, details of which will be left for the would-be reader to discover. Suffice it to say that Enzo's compelling storytelling will prevent you from putting the book down until the ending is revealed.
Intermixed in the drama, the dogness of Enzo with his human-perspective narrative manifests itself in many humorous passages, from his deranged attack on Zoë's stuffed zebra when he was inadvertently left home alone for too long, to his revenge on the crows that taunted him, and the thrill of his lifetime when Denny took him to the racetrack, secured him to the seat of a racecar with a bed sheet, and took him out for a few hot laps. After it was over, Enzo reflected on the experience.
I floated through the rest of our trip. I dreamed of going out again at speed, but I suspected -- as it turned out, correctly so -- that more track time for me was unlikely. Still. I had my memory, my experience I could relive in my mind again and again. Two barks means faster. Sometimes, to this day, in my sleep I bark twice because I am dreaming of Denny driving me around Thunderhill, the two of us laying down a hot lap, and I bark twice to say faster. One more lap, Denny! Faster!
The Art of Racing in the Rain is creative, clever, humorous, and suspenseful, ranking among the best of contemporary novels. For anyone who's loved a dog, anyone who ponders what dogs are dreaming about and what they are thinking or attempting to communicate, anyone who appreciates the finesse of racing, and anyone who longs for a more humane world, this book presents an extraordinary perspective. And for those with canine companions: It will make you consider them in a whole new light.
When I return to this world, I will be a man. I will walk among you. I will lick my lips with my small, dexterous tongue. I will shake hands with other men, grasping firmly with my opposable thumbs. And I will teach people all that I know. And when I see a man or a woman or a child in trouble, I will extend my hand, both metaphorically and physically. I will offer my hand. To him. To her. To you. To the world. I will be a good citizen, a good partner in the endeavor of life that we all share.
As Enzo learned from Denny, That which you manifest is before you. You'll have to read the book to find out what lies ahead for each of them.
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About the Author
Jan Baughman on Swans -- with bio. She is Swans co-editor. (back)