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American Hamlet
A silent boy who loves dogs and lives with tragedy.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE

By David Wroblewski

Ecco. 566 pp. $25.95

Sit. Stay. Read. The dog days of summer are nigh, and here is a big-hearted novel you can fall into, get lost in and finally emerge from reluctantly, a little surprised that the real world went on spinning while you were absorbed.

You haven't heard of the author. David Wroblewski is a 48-year-old software developer in Colorado, and this is his first novel. It's being released with the kind of hoopla once reserved for the publishing world's most established authors. No wonder: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an enormous but effortless read, trimmed down to the elements of a captivating story about a mute boy and his dogs. That sets off alarm bells, I know:

Handicapped kids and pets can make a toxic mix of sentimentality. But Wroblewski writes with such grace and energy that Edgar Sawtelle never succumbs to that danger. Inspired improbably by the plot of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," this Midwestern tale manages to be both tender and suspenseful.

The story takes place in a small Wisconsin town where Gar and Trudy Sawtelle happily raise and train their own unusual breed of dogs. The time is the early 1970s, but Wroblewski casts the setting in the sepia tones of an earlier period, as though cut off from the modern age. Their only child is an endearing boy named Edgar, who arrived 14 years ago after a string of miscarriages that almost crushed his mother's spirit. Edgar cannot speak or make any sounds, but he's otherwise healthy. To his grateful parents, "it didn't matter what in him was special and what ordinary. He was alive. . . . Compared to that, silence was nothing."

He quickly develops a rich facility with words and communicates in a mixture of standard American Sign Language and his family's own private gestures, "a language in which everything important could be said." And, to a remarkable extent, that discourse includes their animals. Some of the most engaging moments in the novel involve Edgar and his parents training the dogs with a technique that seems somehow tedious and magical: "They spent long hours doing crazywalking, stays, releases, shared-gaze drills . . . watching, listening, diverting a dog's exuberance, not suppressing it."

Wroblewski's parents once raised dogs in this area of Wisconsin, and every page here expresses his love and knowledge of these animals. Yet the precise nature of the Sawtelles' breed remains tantalizingly vague. They "show rare, unnameable talents," and we catch glimpses of the dogs in various colors and sizes, but what matters is their demeanor, their character, "the way they look at you." Though never actually personified, they express the subtler qualities we associate with being human: judgment, even whimsy and, above all, a kind of intelligent presence and individuality that's unnerving to strangers. "Some, for example, seemed capable of inspiration," Wroblewski writes. "A dog with a keen sense of humor would find ways to make jokes with you, and could be a joy to work with. Others were serious and contemplative."

Into this idyllic setting slithers Edgar's smooth-talking uncle, Claude. You don't need to catch the Hamlet references, and if you do, that won't sap the novel's suspense. Wroblewski plays with Shakespeare's troubled prince the same way Jane Smiley used "King Lear" for A Thousand Acres, borrowing the frame but not the details. Claude has been in the Navy, in Korea, and though he can be charming, he's "ferociously solitary." Edgar's father gives Claude a job and a place to stay while he gets back on his feet, but the situation becomes uncomfortable almost immediately: "Arguments arose, puzzling and disconcerting," Wroblewski writes. "Though the details differed each time, Edgar got the idea that Claude and his father had slipped without their knowing it into some irresistible rhythm of taunt and reply whose references were too subtle or too private to decipher."

Eventually, those disagreements spark a murder that shatters everyone's life on the farm. Edgar's world comes "permanently unsprung," and he's forced to flee into the forests of Wisconsin with three young dogs no more ready to live on their own than he is. It's a long, dark journey for this little gang, a constant struggle against starvation and discovery set in a wilderness that Wroblewski describes in all its harrowing adventure and serendipity. But the real triumph is Edgar, this boy of rare sensitivity, virtue and resilience, carving out of air with his hands the rich language of his heart.

Most of the story comes to us through a masterful, transparent voice: The author, the narrator, the pages -- everything fades away as we're drawn into this engrossing tale. But there are also a few inventive variations. Once in a while, we see events from a dog's point of view, in a strangely humane but inhuman perspective. Another chapter is made up of Edgar's first memories as a baby and toddler, and there's a chilling section told from the murderer's perspective.

As the thriller elements of the story rise and propel it along, Wroblewski laces in signs of mysticism, sometimes a little too portentous, but usually just right: The spooky old woman who runs a convenience store in town offers impromptu fortune-telling. In one of the novel's eeriest moments, Edgar is visited by "a water-shimmer" -- a figure who appears only by displacing rain during a storm. And then there are those uncanny descriptions of the boy and his dogs: "the poised stillness of their bodies, and especially their gaze." These otherworldly touches move in and out of the novel, vanishing almost before you can focus on them.

The final section gathers like a furious storm of hope and retribution that brings young Edgar to a destiny he doesn't deserve but never resists. It's a devastating finale, shocking though foretold, that transforms the story of this little family into something grand and unforgettable. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr@washpost.com.

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