If bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the debut novel by Colorado-based writer David Wroblewski, were a table it would be made without nails. The joinery is so seamless that it makes efforts to deconstruct its complexity futile. As furniture, this book qualifies as a banquet table of context: a place to pull up a chair and enjoy a feast of words. Elegance and simplicity grace every page as Wroblewski finds authentic power through well-crafted scenes and strong character development. Here is fiction with the truth of memoir.
Though he can hear perfectly, young protagonist Edgar Sawtelle was born mysteriously mute. He communicates with his fellow humans and the canines under his care through sign language or by writing things down on paper. Wroblewski was faced with the daunting task of a main character who requires no quotation marks. How do you write dialogue in sign language? How do you write from a dog's point of view? Fearlessly, the author takes readers beyond the spoken word to a higher form of communication. Wroblewski displays such a steadfast confidence in his vision that questioning his sometimes-daring techniques never enters a reader's mind. Although the pace of the book is often as slow and drawn out as a long day on the farm, the reader forgives this deliberate plodding and accepts the pace of endless chores carefully done. Nothing is rushed or glossed over without examination. On a bitterly cold night, a dog steps into the "apparition of his own breath." Rain suddenly falls from a cloudless sky, and the narrative pauses to explain the mystery of this phenomenon. When Edgar and his father fire up an old tractor, it's not a one-sentence affair. Every sputter, every whiff of fuel is duly recorded. Readers feel the pistons vibrate the metal seat recoil from the backfire as it foreshadows the violence to come. An aura of the best of Stephen King swarms about this novel; a peaceful and orderly setting is doomed to be overwhelmed by spiraling chaos.
The Sawtelle family has been breeding dogs on their remote farm in northern Wisconsin for generations. Wroblewski deftly creates a fictional breed with a fascinating history. A Sawtelle dog is a highly alert and sensitive animal that is not allowed to leave the farm until it is fully grown and rigorously trained. This arduous dedication to a proper upbringing of the dogs offers a stark contrast to the crumbling human drama of death and deception swirling about the farm. The dogs bear witness to a human folly that intentionally echoes Shakespeare. The ghosts of Hamlet, the witches of Macbeth and the blindness of King Lear darken this small, isolated world. This is not a story with a contrived and neatly wrapped conclusion, and the final passages of this novel are so vivid, they will haunt you. In the end, humans are revealed for what they sometimes become--not worthy of canine companionship.
Wroblewski spent over a decade laboring on this complex tale, and it shows. He sights a careful eye down every line and paragraph in a diligent effort to keep his story plumb. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle ranks as one of the best first novels since Donna Tart burst on the scene with The Secret History more than 12 years ago. Both books share a darkly suspenseful edge as they explore murder and mayhem. In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Wroblewski's writing is so forceful and sure-handed that the reader is seduced into submission. Wroblewski has you from the outset, and he never loosens his grip.