Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain is the philosophical Enzo, a mixed breed dog who lives with race car driver Denny. Based on a TV documentary about Mongolia, Enzo believes he will come back as a human in his next life, so he prepares during his current incarnation by observing Denny and the other humans he encounters--and watching lots of television.

Enzo is there when Denny falls in love with Eve and the two get married and have a daughter, Zoe. Denny's attempts to build a racing career cause some stress in the marriage, as does Eve's refusal to see a doctor for the fierce headaches she experiences. Eventually, a crisis takes her to the emergency room, and she learns she has a brain tumor. It is clear that only bad things will come from this diagnosis--and many do, providing a series of horrendous challenges for Denny and Enzo to overcome.

The Art of Racing in the Rain was the One Book One Denver selection last year, so I had some hope that it might be a good read, despite the fact that my friend Suzy had disliked it so much she hadn't finished it. Alas, I found this book ridiculous. I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the voice of Enzo the dog (even if you can allow yourself to believe in a philosophical, television-watching dog, some parts of the portrayal do not make sense; for example, Enzo might have watched a lot of shows in the Law and Order franchise, but without being able to read [and he's admitted he can't read], how would he know that Trial by Jury was "much maligned"? There's no indication that Denny discusses television criticism. I know I'm nitpicking, but if you want us to believe an unbelievable narrator, you have to construct that narrator carefully).

Even worse, however, are the third-rate philosophical musings built around the lore of driving/racing (e.g., "That which you manifest is before you.") They're on a par with the kind of smarmy life lessons conveyed in the novels of Mitch Albom or in Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Yes, I know millions of people love Albom, Coehlo, and Stein--but I am not one of them.

Favorite passage: None


  1. My neighbor recommended this to me several years back, and it keeps surprising me how popular it has remained. Even though some of Enzo's inspirational statements sound like recycled Zen philosophy, I've heard lots of readers comment that they found them uplifting. If inspirational statements a la Albom, Coehlo, Stein (and the Hallmark Channel) fall flat for us, what kind of stories/material inspires you?

  2. What a good question. I guess I am rather difficult to inspire, but here are a few thoughts:
    1. Sue Bender's Plain and Simple, which is a memoir of Bender's personal spiritual quest. I read this about 20 years ago and it really resonated. I've been thinking about rereading it recently, and your question is giving me another push in that direction.
    2. Beautiful writing about interesting characters in challenging situations--within an interesting or well-crafted narrative structure--fiction or nonfiction. I guess I mostly don't want to read obvious "philosophy"--I want to think about something interesting that an author has put before me. Fiction examples: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave or The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, or Andre Dubus's House of Sand and Fog, or Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, or Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. Nonfiction examples: Tracy Kidder's House or Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here.
    3. Poetry. A favorite poem of mine is "Let Evening Come," by Jane Kenyon--simple yet comforting. I recommend the collections that Garrison Keillor has put together (Good Poems, Good Poems for Hard Times, and Good Poems: American Places) as good starting points for finding accessible and beautiful poetry.

    I'd be interested in what others would have to say in response to your question.

  3. I just finished this book, and I loved it. It's sweet and funny and touching. It's told from the perspective of the family's wise dog, Enzo, which somehow makes it more sweet and touching. Enzo is a rather intelligent and philosophical dog, and he uses car racing to add to and modify his philosophy of life.

  4. @ Laurel: I get what you say about not liking obvious philosophy. What I enjoyed about Enzo's philosophizing is that he usually does it in response to something that happens in his life. He comes across as someone trying to find the principles for living his own life, rather than preaching them void of context.

    I keep hearing good things about "Little Bee," so it's going on my to-read list (if I ever get the time to get around to it!).