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Alas, poor Fido

July 13, 2008|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

A Novel

David Wroblewski

Ecco: 566 pp., $25.95

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To CALL "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" a tale of a boy and his dog would be accurate, but it is hardly sufficient. Indeed, David Wroblewski's first novel is an audacious retelling of "Hamlet" set on a farmstead in the rural Midwest, a pastiche in which dog breeders, veterinarians, cops and even puppies are made to play the familiar roles from Shakespeare's greatest play. Remarkably, Wroblewski brings it off with flair.

The melancholy prince becomes young Edgar Sawtelle, the scion of a family of dog breeders, mute from birth but eloquent in sign language and a master of wordplay. When his father dies under suspicious circumstances and his uncle insinuates himself into both the kennel and the marriage bed, we quickly see that something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin. To Edgar falls the task of solving the mystery, revenging his father's death and setting things in order.

Lest the reader fail to notice the literary conceit, Wroblewski helps us out with character names that amount to a wink and a nod. Gertrude, the faithless queen, becomes Trudy, the dog breeder's wife; Claudius, the murderous uncle, is called Claude. A country veterinarian named Papineau is the unmistakable stand-in for Polonius, and a sweet but doomed dog called Almondine is the canine stand-in for Ophelia.

By borrowing the plot of the most famous play in history, Wroblewski is sacrificing much of the suspense; after all, we know how "Hamlet" ends. To compensate, Wroblewski seeks to impress the reader with feats of literary legerdemain, as when the troupe of players who "catch the conscience of the king" are turned into a litter of puppies who are made to show off the tricks they have learned at Edgar's hand. At certain moments -- the ghostly manifestation of Edgar's dead father and the final duel between Edgar and his uncle in a burning barn -- Wroblewski manages to break free of his source material and reimagine the scenes in new and inventive ways.

Having given himself permission to embellish his book with borrowings from the Bard, Wroblewski did not stop with "Hamlet." We are treated to a summer storm on Lake Superior that is faintly reminiscent of those in "King Lear" or "The Tempest," and the single spookiest character in the whole book is a country storekeeper named Ida Paine, a weird sister right out of "Macbeth" whose powers of conjury and prophecy allow us to glimpse the dark secret that was buried with Edgar's dead father.

" 'That it?' she would ask when she'd totaled their items, cocking her head and fixing them with a stare," writes Wroblewski. "You could see people stop to think, was that really it? The question began to reverberate in their minds, a metaphysical conundrum."

The author decorates his saga with an inside look at the workings of a dog-breeding kennel and the challenges that must be overcome by a trainer who, like Edgar, cannot speak out loud. Some of the most intriguing passages of the book, in fact, are devoted to practicalities that the author succeeds in raising to the realm of the spiritual. The goal of dog breeding, one character is made to explain, is "producing a scientifically constructed working dog," but the Sawtelle family is obsessed with discovering "what a dog meant."

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is, all at once, a mystery, a thriller, a ghost story and a literary tour de force. Just as the Sawtelles seek inner meaning in the bloodlines of a dog, the author invites us to see signs and portents in every tragedy that befalls the star-crossed family. "Below that chaos of image and memory, something so powerfully suppressed he would barely remember it: the idea that everything once true in the world was now past, and a thousand new possibilities had been loosed," writes Wroblewski of the moment of revelation when Edgar happens upon his dying father, and when his mother reaches out to comfort him: "Her touch had released some tiny increment of the poison bound up in him that would, days to come, ripen into sorrow."

Perhaps the most daring decision that the author has made is to write at the leisurely pace and in the digressive style characterized by the 19th century novel. In an era when short books are offered to readers with short attention spans, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is an authentic epic, long and lush, full of back story and observed detail. Wroblewski takes special pleasure, for example, in inventories of the rusty and musty contents of old barns and sheds, and he seems to love wordplay as much as Edgar does. Once the reader has fallen under his spell, however, the author exercises a certain magic that catches and holds our attention, a magic that is undeniably his own.

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