There's something rotten in the state of Wisconsin.
David Wroblewski draws on disparate literary influences (Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, Kipling's The Jungle Book and most notably Shakespeare's Hamlet) for a family saga set in the early 1970s in rural Wisconsin. The result, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is exemplary.
Fourteen-year-old Edgar is mute. Together with his father, Gar, and mother, Trudy, they breed "Sawtelle" dogs, precious, intelligent working animals, on their farm. Gar whelps the pups, Trudy (nee Gertrude) trains them and young Edgar names them with the help of a dictionary. Edgar's constant canine companion is Almondine, a creature who "simply worried whenever the boy was out of her sight," and becomes his guardian, of sorts.
The appearance of Edgar's uncle Claude (nee Claudius), following a 20-year absence, leads to the inevitable: murder most foul, strange and unnatural.
Subsequently, with Trudy in mourning, Edgar succumbs to anger, doubt and brooding and eventually absconds into the woods with a trio of dogs, all the while fomenting a plan to confront Claude.
That this book has become a national best-seller is no surprise; it is a about a boy and his dog, after all. (Marley & Me, anyone?) Yet it is not the most likely candidate for best-seller-dom: It is long (556 pages), leisurely (it takes more than 250 pages before parallels to Hamlet lock in place), it is set during an unfashionable period (the 1970s) in the middle of nowhere with a main character who is handicapped. So why has it resonated with so many readers?
The novel, as a form, is an old dog trying to learn a new trick. It has been struggling to find a way to entice an audience among people more accustomed to the short, addictive snippets of the Internet and the nonstop cacophony of television. What Mr. Wroblewski has done here with mute Edgar is produce a character that physically mirrors our own experience sitting in front of the television or the computer screen.
We can see and hear, but we can't talk back. Edgar can write and sign, as well as hear, but he cannot talk. We, like Edgar, are forced to be observers and thinkers, the perfect state for reading.
Theories aside, Mr. Wroblewski, a software designer who once lived in Austin, has done one verifiable thing: He's produced one of the most charming and absorbing novels this year, one in which even the digressions, about dog breeding or Midwestern electrical storms, prove interesting.
This is a book for long summer nights on the mythical porch swing to be read in the dying light. When you do read it, savor it, for treats like this are rare indeed.