Friday, April 13, 2012


Book publisher's marketing department's hypothetical dream plot, 2012 version:
Jacqueline Kennedy's toy poodle, having been transformed by a vision of heaven, moves to a decrepit Provençal farmhouse, falls in love with a shih tzu, and gives birth (without anesthetics) to a litter of pleasantly diverse puppies, who, being both French and Chinese, are perfectly housebroken by age six weeks.
Occasionally while reading The Art of Racing in the Rain I wondered if author  Garth Stein ever worked in that marketing department (short answer: probably not). He sure knows how to load a book with crowd-pleasing elements:

The dog. Like Chet, the narrator of Spencer Quinn's wonderful comic detective stories, narrator Enzo is an articulate canine of indeterminate ancestry. Chet, however, is much doggier. Enzo, by contrast, is literary, culturally sophisticated, and psychologically astute--practically an Edwardian English butler. The book does not reveal whether he ever scoots his bottom on the rug.

The dad. Like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Stein's Art has to do with values, machines, and fathers, but it is blessedly shorter and simpler than Pirsig's tome--none of those lengthy digressions about ancient philosophy that gave Zen weight but also made it harder to read.

The dying woman. Like far too many popular books, films, and songs, Racing in the Rain centers on a dying young woman--in this case, with brain cancer. When was the last time you wept for a fictional dying man? Just wondering.

The dysfunction. Like just about everything by Jodi Picoult, Racing features people in dysfunctional families fighting with, against, and for one another.

The driver. Families, love, death, parenting--would a guy read this book? Hey, let's throw in a whole lot about auto racing! Cars! Technique! Competitions! And let's make Dad a driver! Should work.

The dharma.  Add a few grains of motivational spirituality--the cryptic mantra, "That which you manifest is before you" (huh?); the expectation of reincarnation; the belief that the mind, or the will, controls events; the valuing of the soul above the body--why, it almost sounds philosophical, yet you don't have to think very hard.

The dénouement.  May I tell you that the ending is reasonably happy? And that it takes place in Italy? What's not to like?

Well, it worked. I--and a million or so other people--liked The Art of Racing in the Rain. It's not a great book, but it's well plotted and cleverly written. Sometimes you laugh; sometimes you cry. Sometimes you laugh at yourself for being manipulated into crying. But it's a pleasant read. And it does make me wonder what my dogs are thinking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! It made me laugh, especially since I've read the book and really get your points about Enzo being an Edwardian butler dog.

I've heard that Stein added the car racing because he himself did some amateur racing (before he crashed). Still, I'm not sure the cars are the only appeal for men in this book. It's like saying men don't want heart-warmers about dogs, they just want machines and other testosterone boosters in their books. What do you think?