This is my confession: I have never met a dog I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. When dog owners pass me on the street, they are guaranteed to extend their walks by at least a few minutes, because their dog will be in my loving embrace before they have even noticed me lunging for it. From cute puppies to endearing old-timers, fit-in-my-purse Chihuahuas to towering-over-little-me beasts … I adore them! So, when my friends asked me to dog sit their puppies Lilly and Brogue during their holiday a few weeks ago, the answer was immediately yes. Yes. YES!
Now, sitting on the couch with Brogue blissfully asleep on top of my already numb feet and Miss Lilly yawning and contentedly nestling in for the night next to me on the other side, I start reading Garth Stein’s ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ and, as with all dogs, I immediately fall in love.
Enzo, the narrator of ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, is, of course, a dog. An old dog at that; on the eve of his death, Enzo reflects on the twists and turns of his life and that of his beloved human Denny as old age takes its toll and he readies himself for what comes next. Death, yes, but only of his body; for Enzo believes that his soul will return to this world to walk among us as a man.
“In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog’s master whispers into the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. […] I learned that from a program on the National Geographic channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready. I am ready.” – Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
From the moment semi-professional race car driver Denny picks Enzo out of a pile of puppies at a Washington farm, dog and man adore each other and Enzo soon finds true happiness as the faithful companion of his owner Denny as he pursues success both on and off the racing track. Sitting on the sofa watching endless reruns of memorable races together (accompanied by the hours spent binge watching television by himself when Denny is at work), Enzo educates himself on the human condition and learns that life, like racing, isn’t just about going fast. Rather, he discovers that the techniques needed on the race track, can also be used to successfully navigate all of life’s ordeals.
“That which you manifest is before you” – Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
Enter Eve. When, after a year of pure bachelor joy, Denny meets, falls in love with and marries Eve, Enzo finds himself reluctantly having to make room for a new addition to Denny’s life. And when the couple is blessed with the birth of their daughter Zoë soon after, life is bliss for Denny and his family. At least for a while. True to form, however, all good things must eventually come to an end.
In an unexpected turn of events, just as his daughter Zoë is about to be born, Denny finally lands a job as a professional racecar driver, causing him to miss her birth and forcing him to spend much of her early childhood away from home. Then, having ignored her debilitating headaches for too long, Eve inevitably becomes seriously ill and mother and daughter decide to move in with her parents for the duration of her recovery, leaving Denny to live alone in their own home with Enzo. When Eve ultimately loses the battle for her life, another battle quickly ensues: crushed by the death of their daughter, Eve’s parents are determined to get custody over their granddaughter and will stop at nothing to win permanent custody over little Zoë. When Denny is then faced with a trumped-up rape charge, he almost buckles. Because, let’s be honest, this is too much for one man to handle.
“Racing is doing. It is being part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment. Reflection must come at a later time.” Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
Through the ups and (often predictable) downs of Denny’s life, Enzo remains his loyal companion and, using the race track philosophies he has gleaned from Denny, he becomes an honest witness whose memories guide the reader along Denny’s tumultuous journey as he navigates bachelorhood, marriage, family, illness, death, in-laws, and above all racing, especially in the rain.
Unfortunately, though I thoroughly enjoyed Stein’s novel, it is a shame that the storyline, especially in the later chapters describing Denny’s string of bad luck, often borders on the melodramatic and, as a result, the story loses its believability very quickly. The ending, much like the preceding pages, is charming and well-written, though highly anticipated. Luckily, Enzo is the book’s saving grace and I would have gladly kept following him on this walk through memory lane, stagy as it may have been. For those readers hesitant to try a book narrated from the perspective of a dog, however, let me reassure you: though missing opposable thumbs and the ability to speak, Enzo’s ruminations on life are graceful and insightful as he shares his unique view on life and the lessons he has learned with an eloquence that is suitable for a soon-to-be man. No barks, woofs or tail wagging involved.