Edgar Sawtelle owes a lot to Shakespeare. David Wroblewski owes a lot to Stephen King. He also owes a lot to me for the amount of time I spent digesting a 552 page book that should have been finished off somewhere around page 350.
Shakespeare and King are but two of the moving parts in this complex machine. A third has to do with dogs–breeding, training, selling. A fourth is disabilities (I knew when I saw the Oprah stamp on the book, we’d see either those or child abuse.) There are others, but that’s my list for the moment.
First, the Shakespeare. You remember Hamlet. Claudius, brother of Hamlet, king of Denmark, kills his brother-king and marries his sister-in-law-queen, Gertrude. Hamlet (jr.), prince of Denmark, gets a visit from his murdered father complaining about the situation, and Hamlet the younger spends the rest of the play trying to figure out whether the apparition was really his father or a devil, whether Claudius is really guilty or not (Who hasn’t heard “the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king” even without a clue to its context?). Gar (nickname for Edgar) Sawtelle is the patriarch of a dogbreeding “kingdom.” Not exactly Denmark, but it works for the purposes of this novel. He has a born-mute (but not deaf) son named Edgar. He has a brother named Claude (Claude=Claudius, get it?) who kills him to get the kingdom and marry his wife, Trudy (Gertrude/Trudy, wink-wink) The Elizabethan Claudius and the 20th C. Claude both use poison for their dastardly deed, though the method of administration differs slightly.
Well, what about the name “Edgar,” you might say? Not even close to “Hamlet.” True, but Edgar is the name of another wronged and betrayed son in King Lear. Close enough to make the point, far enough off center to keep things from getting too tidy. There’s even someone in the situation of the mistakenly-murdered royal advisor, Polonius, though there doesn’t seem to be a name-connection, and the ending is quite suitably Hamletonian. Now Will the bard didn’t invent this plot. He adapted and improved on it. Wroblewski did the former, but certainly not the latter.
Names are very important here even when they have nothing to do with Shakespeare. You could have a lot of fun tracking them down if that sort of thing is fun for you. “Sawtelle,” for example, probably plays off “to see” and “to tell,” which would be appropriate.
Because, you see, Edgar actually does get a ghostly visit. Just like Hamlet. That’s where the Stephen King stuff enters. Young Edgar Sawtelle has supernatural visions. Implicitly, this is somehow connected to his muteness. You did know that people robbed of one sense or function get another to compensate, didn’t you? So young Edgar’s father returns from the great beyond right on cue in a very close reprise of Hamlet’s oh-my-god-it’s-dad scene, right down to “remember me… “ And from that point forward, like Hamlet, he starts spying and devising tests to see if he can catch Claude out. Problem with Edgar’s visions is that they aren’t quite believable most of the time. When you get a Stephen King apparition, it’s undeniable. There is no doubt that clown is coming out of the sewer. Absolutely, that little girl can set fires at will. Here, it’s all a little muddy and abstract. Furthermore, Edgar’s crucial failure to remember something he actually saw, not just a specter, is not credible and felt to me like a plot manipulation rather than a natural consequence of the boy’s capabilities or lack thereof. His most believable psychic situation occurs when a farmer returns to talk to Edgar about his life while Edgar is cleaning out an old shed of the dead guy’s possessions. Believable, but it does little to move the action, and there’s a lot of that “padding” in Edgar Sawtelle.
The dogs–their names, their training, the fact that they are bred entirely outside any AKC standards and known only as “Sawtelles,” their ability to dope out situations and make decisions–are an integral concrete and spiritual part of this tale. All the characters practice canine communication at some level or another. No one shows his/her cruel character by kicking animals around with Dickensian brutality. You could learn a lot about care, feeding, and training of canines from this book. For the most part, they did their part to keep the plot moving and helped define the characters nicely.
However, Edgar Sawtelle, was all in all not a great reading event for yours truly. Just to show that I don’t criticize without giving suggestions for improvement, I would like to offer the following to Mr. Wroblewsky:
. 1.Cut all the chapters from any dog’s point of view. It makes the thing Disneyesque and adds nothing to either insight or action.
. 2.Cut most or all of the “Claude” chapters. Especially the one in the second person. We get all the information we need from the other characters. In fact, get fully committed to non-Edgar POV chapters or cut them all. Inserting a bit of Trudy, a smidgen of Glen, etc., interrupts the fictive dream in a most unsatisfying way.
. 3.Cut most of the letters Edgar finds. Some of the information is important, and the tone and language is appropriate to what he’s investigating. However, a paragraph or two would do the job. No need for the whole text.
After you do all that, send me the ms. and I’ll help you cut some more. We’ll be able to trim this down to an exciting story with a fascinating character. Right now it’s a bit shaggy.