As the companion to an elderly Australian Shepherd mix (Ziggy Stardust) who is at the stage in life when his hind legs regularly give out on him, I had some difficulty getting through the opening chapter of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper). Narrated by Enzo, an aged mixed breed adopted by a young would-be race car driver named Denny, the book opens on the dog as he goes through his life one more time before leaving it. It is writer Stein’s conceit that Enzo, from his observant nature and time spent with Denny in front of the television, is a remarkably ruminative animal, capable of reflecting on the afterlife (no All Dogs Go to Heaven for this canine, more a steadfast belief in reincarnation) and opining on the greatest race car movies ever made.
As he watches Denny go through his life and life crises, Enzo alternates between personal reactions (initial jealousy, for instance, when Denny meets the woman he marries) and the philosophical. The latter is frequently expressed through metaphorical reflections on auto racing as first pontificated to Enzo by Denny — and also through a memorable chapter where the driver takes the dog for a spin on Thunderhill Raceway Park — and if a few of these words read more like the author’s than they do the dog’s, I was willing to go along with it.
This is one of those books that dog lovers give to other dog lovers to read, and I’ll admit to having been a little wary when one of my co-workers first offered me a copy. That initial chapter, as Enzo describes the pain brought on by a lifetime of the kind of hip problems that frequently plague big dogs, is real and emotional, letting the reader know that the writer isn’t going to back away from the hard parts of his characters’ lives. Throughout the course of the book, Enzo’s family experiences cancer, the devastating death of a loved one, a punishing child custody battle and trumped-up allegations that his owner is a sexual predator. That last almost pushed me out of the book — a bit too melodramatic to these eyes — though I was held by our narrator dog’s believable devotion and concern for his man.
In the end, though, I found The Art of Racing in the Rain difficult to put down once I got into Enzo’s life story. Most of us who live with animals have moments at our ebb when we look at our pet and know, at the very least, that they can sense we’re feeling down. Stein’s imminently readable novel takes that idea further and argues that our pets know so much more about us — and still love us anyway. That’s a comforting thought, even if there are some things I’d rather not have Ziggy Stardust know about me.