The Art of Racing in The Rain, by Garth Stein

Reviewed by Christopher Willard

The Art of Racing in the Rain has been getting a good deal of press lately. It was a Starbuck’s book club pick and on the Today Show’s list of ten summer reads. Nonetheless, this is a book that will drive any serious writer or reader completely bonkers because its success is so unfathomable.

The story is narrated by an aged dog named Enzo who, when we first meet him, is lying in a puddle of his urine. From here we head back in time to when the dog was a puppy adopted by a wannabe race car driver named Denny Swift. (If you find the choice of surname a deep and wildly evocative choice for a racer, you’ll probably find the work quite enjoyable.) Denny marries, the couple has a child, and Denny continues his attempts to get seats in major races. Ah, but this is all a set up for the tropes of Victorian sentimental novels. And Stine doesn’t disappoint here. Everything gets worse as the chapters pass. First Denny’s wife dies. Then he is falsely accused of statutory rape by a character that doesn’t appear until half way through the book and whose sole narrow role is only to intensify Denny’s problems. This leads to his daughter and his dog being taken away, so of course his racing career stutters to a halt. We’re left pondering the profound unknowns: Will he be found innocent?  Will he get is daughter or dog back?  Will a rich man suddenly appear at the end of the book to offer him a major driving contract? I’d hate to give it away but I’m afraid I already did in asking.  (If you find this unanswered question format enticing and alluring, again you’ll probably really enjoy the work.)  We’re so one dimensionally moved that not only do we know what’s coming but we can hardly bear thinking about it let alone eventually reading its realization. This sort of neat little package may once have worked for Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield or most of Dickens but in The Art of Racing in the Rain the plot comes across as shopworn and unimaginative. 

 Oh yes, the dog dies at the end, but we knew that from what he told us in the first chapter. Not to worry, Stein ties up this little tidbit by reincarnating the dog into the body of a little boy who, believe it or not, loves racing! (If you just have to shed a tear over such a touching little sitcom awww moment, you’ll possibly really like this book.) If anything, this book may prove that the contemporary sentimental novel has now become a full fledged genre replete with a reliance upon emotional hijacking and tidy endings.

Those who appreciate literary novels where writers carefully place words will remain perplexed at the legs this book seems to possess. The writing is average in every respect. The dog continually switches between first person and omniscient narrator and he often relates events he has no ability to experience.   Catchphrases abound and Stein tosses them frequently as though the sheer repetition creates resounding depth. Nearly every chapter begins with racing details before segueing into the story. These details are evidently added in an attempt to create analogies between racing and life. I like writing that takes risks, surprises me, ripples with depth and insight. But this is pure generic plot driven typesetting. Thus, when Stein writes the line, “’Sir!’ the cop barked” we guess he’s merely using the cliché barking cop common to noir novels.  It was the funniest moment in the book, albeit probably by mistake, and for a second I thought maybe everyone was turning dog.  I also hate authors who treat us readers like we’re complete dolts. In this plodding plot Stein tells us everything and then in case we may have fallen asleep for a few sentences, he tells us again to make sure we get it. In fifty nine chapters there are only three that begin to rise above mediocrity. One in particular about dogs envying monkeys with opposable thumbs is freshest even though it appears close in tone and subject to Gabe Hudson’s monkey scenes in Dear Mr. President

Finally, two main elements we desire in a novel, to identify with the main character and to trust the writer have taken a leave of absence. The dog’s lack of consistent voice frustrates our attempts to believe in him. So sadly he becomes like the other characters, shallow archetypes.

An author will lose reliability quickly when gross errors speckle the text. For example, the same dog that is willing to lie down in a puddle of urine never smells crotches or butts, which everyone knows is a dog’s manner of experiencing the world and identifying others.  Early in the book the dog says he’s colorblind but later on he spends time identifying a navy blue dress and a linen colored carpet. A historic TV show is mistitled. Denny feeds his daughter rancid chicken nuggets that the dog, who knows what his master did the entire day by the smells on his clothes when he comes home, can’t seem to sense the nuggets are rancid until he nearly stuffs one up his snout. And, between the hot dogs and chicken nuggets the daughter rarely gets fed any other food which distinctly contradicts Denny getting mad later in the book because her grandparents don’t buy organic. We want to trust the author has a full grasp of the material.  Stein lost me after the first couple errors and eventually I began to seriously question his awareness of and investment in the work.    

After reading a couple of on line opinions of the book, I really wanted to like it.  It seemed fun, energetic and witty. Sadly it’s none of these. Imagine watching the Indy 500 run entirely under caution and you’ll get the picture.

Christopher Willard is both a writer and visual artist. His first novel was Garbage Head, published by Vehicule Press. He has a novella coming out spring 2009.  Shorter fiction has recently appeared in Ars Medica, Ranfurly Review, and Ukula.  His visual art is represented by Herringer Kiss Gallery and he is in many collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He currently teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

Sobriquet Magazine #46 (September 2008)