As I imagine most dog owners do, I constantly stare at my dog and wonder what she is thinking. There are times I can tell by her facial expressions and gestures: when she wants some food, when she wants me to move over on the couch, when she is about to pee on the floor because she is angry at me. But, sadly, most of the time I don’t know what she thinks, because she is a dog and cannot talk. But in the lovely The Art of Racing in the Rain, we are privy to the thoughts of Enzo, the dog and narrator of the story, as he looks back and recounts the story of his life with his family. And with Enzo (as I often suspect with my own Remy), there is a lot going on in the mind of a dog.
We meet Enzo as an old and sickly dog as he and his owner try to accept his coming death. For me, this meant the waterworks began at the start of the book and continued to the end (at which point they came in at full force). As he prepares for his hoped-for reincarnation as a human, Enzo reflects on what it is to be a dog and part of a human family. Enzo, as so many dogs are, is a vital part of his family and has been there for so many of the defining points of their lives. Enzo’s journey with Denny, an aspiring race car driver and his master, began with just the two of them. Over the years their family number increases, and is marked by much happiness followed by even more tragedy. Enzo’s loyalty to Denny is often what keeps him going, and Enzo knows this. It is his duty, as he sees it, to love and protect his family inasmuch as he can, and he fulfills this responsibility up to the very end. He proves that all that stuff about dogs and unconditional love and loyalty is true. But now, through Enzo’s thoughts, we see where it comes from and why dogs are such wonderful creatures.
Dogs have a lot of time to think. Enzo has used this time for the better, using his own observances and his wide-ranging knowledge (thanks to lots of television) to shape his philosophies on life. For such a quick and enjoyable read, the book tackles lots of big ideas – namely because Enzo is a smart dog and has some deep thoughts. What stuck with me most were his ideas on death and what comes next. Of course everyone has their own ideas on the Afterlife, whether it is shaped by culture or religion or just convenience. Enzo’s hope and faith in his coming reincarnation as a human with opposable thumbs (thanks to a National Geographic special on the Mongolians) is comforting in light of the life he has led and the tragedies Denny and the family have endured.
It goes without saying, but should still be said, that having a dog as a narrator makes for a unique read. If at first the idea seems at all strange, however, it quickly becomes natural and Enzo proves a reliable narrator. It never falls into gimmick or becomes trite; Enzo is a consistent narrative voice, with a personality and opinions and convictions. We get to know him well, and his family through his eyes. We feel his frustrations at not being able to express himself, and hope along with him that some Stephen Hawking-like machine existed for him to speak all that he knows. I learned a lot about car racing thanks to Enzo (I know its really thanks to Garth Stein, but I like to think it is directly from Enzo), and identified with his picks for favorite actors (number one on his list is Steve McQueen, naturally). Just as dogs themselves are, Enzo’s voice was honest and heartwarming, and gave me a renewed appreciation (and curiosity) for my own dog.
Because it is so many things – funny, heartbreaking, life affirming – The Art of Racing in the Rain is the type of book that travels quickly by word of mouth. (It doesn’t hurt that there are so many dog people out there). My own experience with it is an example of that; my boss lent it to me, only for me sister to read it first. After she read it, she not only made sure I read it, she bought three copies as Christmas gifts – and now I fully intend to recommend it to many. It is nice to think that in this day of the e-book and precarious position of the publishing industry, the reading public and word of mouth still holds so much power. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go spend some quality time with my dog.