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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

Dogs and Ghosts

Extraordinary debut by Wisconsin novelist

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  Some books are written in such exquisite detail that even if you somehow don't care for the overall story, you can't help but enjoy reading them. Robert Coover provided a perfect example with The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., in which the title character, a disappointed accountant, spends his solitary nights immersed in his own world, manipulating a kind of fantasy baseball league of his own creation wherein every action is determined by throws of the dice. Even if the book wasn't your cup of tea, you would still be fascinated by the complexities of the baseball league and the lives of its players.

  Now, Wisconsin native David Wroblewski has added another such book to the canon with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco), a terrific novel wherein chance too often is the deciding factor. The details surrounding the Sawtelle family's magnificent dogs will fascinate you, along with their complex system of dog training.

  Debut novels of this quality don't come along often. And while its 562 pages may seem daunting, the book is by no means wearisome, and the story's length is necessary to its telling.

  Edgar Sawtelle is the only child of Gar and Trudy Sawtelle, operators of a family dog-breeding business on a farm on the edge of the Chequamegon Forest in northern Wisconsin, near where the author himself grew up. Edgar, born in 1958 and unable to speak (but not deaf), uses sign language not only with his parents but also with the dogs, one of the many subtle paranormal elements-including ghosts-that add to the attraction of the novel.

  Edgar, obviously, is not an ordinary boy, and these are not ordinary dogs. The family business was started by Edgar's late grandfather, John Sawtelle, whose principle of dog breeding is nothing like that of standard breeders. In a method continued by his son and grandson, John used mutts and strays-dogs he simply liked for valuable characteristics he saw in them. He bred not from specific traits in pedigreed animals, as others do, but from what he perceived as the "finest individuals," believing that the excellent traits would emerge in the breeding line.

  Though other dog breeders consider the idea nave and wrong-headed, Edgar thinks that his grandfather's vision might have come to pass. You might think so as well, so meticulously does Wroblewski describe their training, which is designed to make them canine companions that not merely obey, but understand why they should obey.

  It is a largely self-contained society with minimal interactions with the larger world beyond the farm and the nearby town of Mellen. Edgar has almost no life other than the farm and the dogs-no friends, no interest in girls.

  Still, it is a pleasant existence for Edgar until his long-lost Uncle Claude-his father's brother-turns up at the farm in the early 1970s, around the time that Edgar turns 14. Actually, Claude makes his first appearance, unidentified, in South Korea in 1952, in a creepy prologue involving a mysterious, highly poisonous substance.

  Echoes of this short prologue will resound again and again. The novel includes many mysteries, and Claude is one of them. It is up to you to decide whether he is evil, amoral or simply badly bent. My money's on the first.

  With the entrance of Claude, the novel takes on its background theme of Hamlet. Edgar's father dies under peculiar circumstances, his mother takes up with his uncle and Edgar begins to suspect his uncle of murder.

  When Edgar accidentally and tangentially becomes involved in the death of a family friend, he sets out in panic for the Chequamegon, accompanied by three of the dogs. Sadly for him, he leaves behind his companion from birth, the dog Almondine, whose psychic abilities rival those of a local storekeeper named Ida.

  The Chequamegon episode is the best of several brilliant extended scenes. Here, more than elsewhere, the author must depend upon getting into the heads of Edgar and the dogs. He does it so well that we hardly notice his cleverness.

  In the last 100 pages, the plot races into a tension-filled thriller that, like Hamlet, can only end in tragedy. Though some will find the resolution sad, the novel is what it must be. Along the way, the book holds many delightful bits and pieces. Check out the Hot Mix Duck Massacre on pages 431-32.