There are books that come up that become required reading in a librarian’s life, and for me, one of the big ones was Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. A few local book clubs were reading it, and it never seems to be on the shelf at work. I decided I should take the time to see what it was about, and not only am I thrilled to have taken the plunge, but I could not find a better way to experience this one than through listening.
Enzo is a philosophic dog and the story is told entirely through his eyes. His owner, Denny Swift, is an aspiring race car driver. The story starts at the end of Enzo’s natural life, and it is a reflection of his experiences with Denny.
Denny’s a guy you cannot help but fall in love with. Perhaps this is precisely the motive behind using Enzo as the narrator, as we’re given a completely biased perspective, but this is one of the few books where the end of the story leaves me sadder for the person than the animal. Yep, I’m heartless.
But I digress. Enzo’s story is the story of Denny, as he navigates through his wife Eve’s crippling disease and eventual death, as well as the tough situation that Eve’s family puts Denny through afterward. There’s the subplot of Denny’s racing career, too, but it is just that: a subplot. And really, the story is this simple. I cannot give you much of a longer description of the plot.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is remarkable because of its simplicity, but it is brilliant because of Stein’s narrative decisions. Enzo is incredibly astute and offers his readers, whom he addresses head on, with quite inspiring insights into life and living. The metaphor here is quite simple, too: no race is one in the first lap, but many races are lost there.
What I really liked about this book was how simple and beautifully the metaphor worked, without once ever feeling overworked. This is a relatively short book — and on audio, it was only 6 discs — but it packs in a lot worth thinking about and discussing without developing an overly complicated story line. Throughout the book, I did feel myself jarred at what happened to Denny, but not because it was entirely surprising. My real surprises came because I hadn’t been paying enough attention to what was going on to sense the next step coming. In other words, I, too, caught myself getting too stuck into my ideas and beliefs instead of “living” the story.
Christopher Evan Welch narrates this book, and I think he is the perfect Enzo. If that name sounds familiar to you, you may remember him as the voice of Tails in the cartoon series of The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog in the 1990s. What works is his slightly deeper voice — not baritone deep, but enough to sound slightly gruff and yet smooth simultaneously. He both reads with 100% emotion yet makes it feel emotionless, like a canine observer. It is easy to fall into the story and lose yourself. See my earlier comment about “living” the story.
The production and editing of this audio were spot on. There was just enough music at the beginning of each disc to help you drop into the story and the setting. I didn’t find any noticable production issues. This was a semi-voiced narration, too, which made for an interesting contrast. The dog-to-person transitions were natural and never forced.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a book that will stand the test of time. There is a lot to dig into here, and I would venture to say it’s a modern classic. Book groups will find plenty to discuss here, but I can see literature classes having a lot to talk about. The writing is strong, but the messages are stronger. The narrative device gives rise to a lot of questions on perspective, especially in a story that involves scandal: can we believe Enzo?
This is a book everyone should read. I don’t think it’s one everyone will like, as Janssen herself was not a huge fan. I’m going to disagree with her though on a couple points (this rarely happens!) – I didn’t think the book was depressing, and I definitely didn’t think this was about a dog. The book is quite hopeful, and the focus, I think, is on humans and humanity. The dog’s the device, the race car if you will, that sets the story in motion. And don’t worry if you’re not a racing fan: it’s minimal. But do be aware there is a lot of swearing and quite a few moments that will make you blush…especially when you’re in your car driving in traffic at 7:30 a.m.
(P.S.: Does anyone else think these covers cater to entirely different audiences? The lighter blue with the script-like writing appeals to the younger readers, while the deeper blue with the more inquisitive-looking dog definitely appeals to the older readers. An interesting tactic!).