book by Garth Stein
annotation by Lee Stoops
“To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live…When I am a person, that is how I will live my life.”
~ Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (160)
Enzo is a dog; a dog, like any other – without a dexterous tongue or opposable thumbs. But he witnesses his life with the mind and intentions of a person. He knows that dogs are the last incarnation of souls before they become human, and he is ready – eager, even – to move into his next incarnation. But, his soul, as a dog, has a purpose and a lot left to learn, as is evidenced by one of the most touching, charming contemporary stories. Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, wrote of The Art of Racing in the Rain, “[This story] has everything: love, tragedy, redemption, danger, and – most especially – the canine narrator Enzo. This old soul of a dog has much to teach us about being human. I loved this book” (from “Praise for The Art of Racing in the Rain” preceding the text). Gruen’s list of included elements in the book is dead on, though it’s her noting of what Enzo’s soul has to teach us that really hits the nail on the head: much.
The story opens in Enzo’s voice letting us know that, while he can’t speak, he can communicate. And, by the end of the first chapter, his personality and perception of humanity is clear and engaging, and already offering some foresight into the story and its tone.
“I close my eyes and listen vaguely in a half sleep as he does the things he does before he sleeps each night. Brushing and squirting and splashing. So many things. People and their rituals. They cling to things so hard sometimes” (8).
Stein’s created a terrifically reliable narrator in Enzo. He is clear on what he knows, thinks, doesn’t know, or confuses him. The typical unreliable nature of a first-person (or, dog) account goes out the window as Enzo honestly shares his witness and role in the Swift family’s life. And he sets up his story by evaluating himself and his species. “I like to think I came from a determined gene pool” (11). Stein’s given Enzo charge of the Swift family from just before its inception throughout an unimaginable tragedy. Denny, Enzo’s master, is a semi-professional racecar driver. Stein uses Denny’s character, his and Enzo’s bond,
“I laid my head on his leg and looked up at him.
“Sometimes I think you actually understand me,” he said. “It’s like there’s a person inside there. Like you know everything.”
I do, I said to myself. I do” (61).
and Enzo’s love of racing as a way to deliver metaphor after metaphor for life and the human (or dog) experience. “But I am a racer at heart, and a racer will never let something that has already happened affect what is happening now” (75).
Stein’s success in the story lies in the true voice of Enzo and his ability to honestly and emotionally recant his experience and understanding of his place and his (and the Swift family’s) life. Language (and lack of) is the means, not the barrier, for a soul that can’t talk. “The human language, as precise as it is with its thousands of words, can still be so wonderfully vague” (288). Throughout the narrative, Enzo’s character and voice drive the story; at breakneck speeds and recovery paces, the dog works the reader through some of the most poignant examples of what it is to live, and how to prepare for what comes next.
Perhaps Stein’s greatest achievement in The Art of Racing in the Rain is Enzo’s reconciling of life as a racecar driver at heart, especially life when it comes in unexpected and derailing ways:
“A driver must have faith. In his talent, judgment, the judgment of those around him…himself…
As the gravel trap rushes at him, the driver must make decisions that will impact his race, his future…What is to be done?
The driver must accept his fate. He must accept the fact that mistakes have been made. Misjudgments. Poor decisions. A confluence of circumstances has landed him in this position. A driver must accept it all and be willing to pay the price for it. He must go off-track.
…At this moment, a driver feels tremendous crisis. He must get back on the gas. He must get back on the track.
…A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.
The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind others that it is to drive to hard and crash” (290-291).
With an impassioned narrator, wit, and sensitivity, Stein manages a story arc that is both smooth and satisfying, heart-warming and heart-wrenching. And by the end of the story, the reader is left asking the same question Enzo is left asking: “Have I squandered my dogness? Have I forsaken my nature for my desires? Have I made a mistake by anticipating my future and shunning my present” (315)? The answer for Enzo is as elusive as it is for anyone. But it’s also not what matters most. What matters most is understanding and living the truth: “The car goes where they eyes go” (321).
Of course, writers must the same dogged pursuit of answering those questions, and Stein’s success for other writers is the example of giving the story direction that’s worth following. Stylistically and structural, the story is sound. But it’s in the creation of the story’s narrator, the voice of Enzo that Stein accomplished something to which all writer’s aspire – an authentic and original voice, a sympathetic heart, a truly created and wholly pure, wholly winning protagonist. For entertainment’s sake, it would be foolish for any reader to pass The Art of Racing in the Rain. For writers hoping to one day write that one, true, open-hearted character, there are few examples out there that demonstrate it as well, as uncontrived, and as warmly.