From The Record, September 29, 2017 –Melanie Cutting
Over this past summer my sister came from the U.S. to the Townships for a visit. I insisted that we watch an episode of Downward Dog. This Pittsburgh-based show centres on a young woman’s dog, Martin, who keeps the audience in the know about his life as a canine millennial. Yes, he can speak, at least to the camera. Unfortunately, he has a limited understanding of the language spoken by the humans around him, and much of the humour of the show derives from Martin’s misperceptions about his life with Nan, his owner. I found it very quirky and often downright hilarious.
My sister said to me, “So, if you like talking dogs, you should read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.” It sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it was a N.Y. Times bestseller for 156 weeks when it was published in 2008. Although I was a little concerned that it would be a little too Marley and Me, I decided to go ahead and pick up a copy. Rather disappointingly, it turned out to be not at all funny: the narrator-dog, Enzo, cannot even talk, although he does a heck of a lot of reacting to what people around him are saying, and complaining about his inability to form words:
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 is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.
As you can see, he has a pretty wide vocabulary, for a dog. What’s more, he is convinced that he is actually a human-waiting-to-happen, a hope stemming from a documentary on TV about dogs in Mongolia. (Enzo is a TV addict; in addition to being a total fan of car-racing footage, he has a full list of favourite actors, including Steve McQueen and Al Pacino [NB NOT Rin Tin Tin].)
As an animal lover, of course, I knew—even with this prima facie lack of humour—that I would nevertheless read and enjoy the tale. One problem is that I tear up very easily whenever a child or animal is sick, injured, endangered, etc. so I generally avoid books on these themes. (Note: Enzo’s demise is in the cards from the very start, so there is no spoiler alert necessary.)
The story concerns Enzo’s owner, Denny, a budding race car driver and mechanic in drizzly Seattle, and his family and friends—and most affectingly, his relationship with Enzo. Named after famed Italian car designer Enzo Ferrari, Enzo the dog is a participant in virtually all aspects of Denny’s life over the course of their 10 or so years together.
Although initially somewhat resentful of Eve, Denny’s wife, Enzo quickly moves past his jealousy, eventually accepting both Eve and, later on, their daughter, Zoë. As a much-smarter-than-average dog, he recognizes how much joy these two bring to Denny’s life, and he is suitably devastated by Eve’s death part way through the book. (Again, non-spoiler alert: this is related in the first few pages!)
While the lives of Denny, Zoë, and Enzo are shattered by Eve’s death, things get worse when Zoë’s custody is challenged by Eve’s parents, well-meaning but selfish people who never liked Denny. Worse comes horribly to worst when they engineer a full-blown court case calling Denny’s fitness as a father into question. Denny’s financial ruin is only one of the many consequences of their actions. One especially moving segment of the book occurs when Denny is sorely tempted to give in to the pressure Eve’s parents have brought to bear, but is physically restrained by Enzo’s timely intervention.
Throughout the book there are references to the qualities that make for a successful race car driver, and, by extension, a successful person. “Your car goes where your eye goes” is Denny’s mantra, and the art of racing in the rain in particular is used as a metaphor for life:
“Very gently. Like there are eggshells on your pedals,” Denny always says, “and you don’t want to break them. That’s how you drive in the rain.” Balance, anticipation, patience. These are all vital. Peripheral vision, seeing things you’ve never seen before. Kinesthetic sensation, driving by the seat of the pants. But what I’ve always liked best is when he talks about having no memory. No memory of things he’d done just a second before. Good or bad. Because memory is time folding back on itself. To remember is to disengage from the present. In order to reach any kind of success in automobile racing, a driver must never remember.
The appealing cover of this 321-page paperback features the head of a Golden retriever-type dog from the nose up, staring directly at the reader. American writer Garth Stein, author of two previous novels and one more recent one (2014), has parlayed Enzo’s story into a small cottage industry. There are Enzo children’s books, an interactive website, and several versions of the original book, as well as a feature film in the offing.
All in all, an enjoyable tear-jerker, loaded with life lessons and more race-car references than any person—or dog— actually needs. The Art of Racing in the Rain can be had in the Lennoxville Library.