A Book Review of “The Art of Racing in the Rain”
Once upon a time, I took a creative writing class in fiction. We’d rotate writers each week and spend our weekdays reading each others’ stuff. Then every Friday afternoon we’d all curl up on couches in a lounge (“classroom”) that we technically weren’t ever supposed to be in. There, with Friday-afternoon angst and the longing to be clutching a red solo cup instead of short manuscripts, a dozen of us would duke it out and criticize the crap out of each another. I remember my dilemma during the last few weeks, close to the end of the semester when all I wanted was to go home to sleep and binge-watch all the television I’d been missing: I had two ideas for the last story I would write. A portrayal of a troubled twenty-something year-old told from the perspective of his cat OR a memoir of my romantic escapades on a Spring break trip abroad.
Eventually, the latter panned out, most likely due to sheer laziness. Memories are easy to write. Fiction is hard to make up, especially when you’re trying to accurately get into the head of a feline. I’ve wondered since then, though, about how that other story might have panned out. I’ve even tried to make it happen, but how to write from the perspective of a cat? With all their unpredictable, zany, and simultaneously cuddly and malicious behavior, how could you narrate a story like that? But hey! You know what would be just as interesting and infinitely more charming: writing from the perspective of a dog.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein does just that and more. Enzo, Enzo, Enzo. It’s the unorthodox name for the book’s narrator, a dog whose consciousness has more depth and heart than 95% of the people that you know. After years of studying human behavior and watching television, he has come to believe in the Mongolian legend that when a dog is finally ready, he will be reincarnated as a man. Enzo is a philosopher, a psychologist, and the best friend that amateur race car driver Denny Swift could ask for. The book opens with Enzo old and decaying, frighteningly close to death and reflecting on his life. With all the blind adoration of a pooch, Enzo has always believed in Denny and sees nothing but his potential to be a true champion. Denny teaches Enzo all about what it means to be a true race car driver. Balance. Patience. Anticipation. Momentum. When you feel the car losing control, you have to ease into the slide and keep going. Allowing yourself to jerk into a negative reaction can only lead to an accident. And driving in the rain? It’s all about that anticipation. When conditions are tough, you have to keep it cool and read the next corner before you’re even there.
Now I know that some of you might be saying or thinking the exact same things that I was at one point. This sounds like some obvious overarching metaphor where racing in a car is like going through life. And with a dog as a narrator, it’s set up to be something like a tacky “Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul” story. In some ways, yeah, that is exactly what you get, but the way that Garth Stein handles the tender, soulful voice of Enzo really makes this book come alive with depth and meaning. The overarching metaphor of race car driving to living life is obvious, but in the novel it’s only Enzo that’s able to see it. The humans are stubborn, naive, and need Enzo just as much as they need each other.
Denny’s hopeful, wild dream of a career is held back by his real-life responsibilities to his wife, Eve, and his daughter, Zoey. And when tragedies do begin to happen, Enzo is helpless to talk about it due to his floppy tongue. He can’t warn anybody. He can’t communicate his deep thoughts. And without thumbs (a gripe he reminds us of often), there is very little that he can physically do. All he has are his “gestures”.
But he does know one big thing, having distilled all his experiences and observations into one bit of advice that he gives us: “that which you manifest is before you”. If you can see it, if you can believe in it, then it’s already yours. The future you want is there for the taking, but you can never give up on it no matter how hard it gets. It’s a new way for us to be reminded that we should never give up on our dreams, no matter how big, ridiculous, or impractical they might be. No matter what obstacles get in our way, what we manifest is there for the taking. Enzo knows this and Denny needs to figure it out by the end of the story, but all Enzo has are his gestures. Refusing to eat. Barking at things. Eating papers. Lying quietly near you and nuzzling you at the right moment. Taking a big poop on a mean person’s fancy rug (I kid you not – this is why I love Enzo).
All Enzo uses are those gestures to help his master try and reach his happy ending. We hear Enzo’s internal dialogue as he comes to understand circumstances and events better than the people do. At times, it’s almost like he’s this omniscient narrator who knows all the secrets to life itself. He’s so wise, so kind, so smart. But then you remember that he’s just this quiet, unassuming, loving and loyal dog. Maybe it’s that simplified perspective on life, colored by nothing but love and joy that we are all missing? Maybe Enzo has it right, and we’ve all got it wrong?
Whatever it is, Denny is the one we have to worry about. He’s only human. How much can anyone really take before giving up? Failed dreams and grave misfortune are enough to rattle any man. Can he make it through? What can Enzo REALLY do to help? I know I’m being annoyingly vague with the actual plot – you can get that from other reviews if need be – but my opinion is that you simply must read “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. Take it from me, a cat person, that this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, about never giving up on dreams, about dealing with misfortune, and I reckon you’ll never look at your own dog quite the same ever again.
And don’t forget: that which you manifest is before you.