The Art of Racing in the Rain and the Art of the Bedtime Story
We are all driving, after all. We’re going somewhere, even if through various acts of repetition. The car goes where the eyes go, says the book. Sometimes your eyes look the wrong direction, but you can’t give up the race. The Art of Racing in the Rain is an adult bedtime story. It has a lovable narrator and an ending that offers a romantic solution to the greatest unknown of life. Enzo is the eyes through which we see this developing tale, but he serves a bigger function too; he embodies a character that is trapped by his own limitations.
To deem something a bedtime story is not a criticism by the way, as much as it is a way to describe a tale that contains certain qualities: just enough tragedy, humor, and a touch of magic. And of course, there are always the unmistakable—and often exaggerated— bad people. In this story, the evil presence is the Twins. I got the sense the moment I closed the book that the ending was not there to convince anybody that Enzo’s spiritual return was actually possible but rather to leave people in that magical place where wondering is possible. A good bedtime story takes you there.
There is nothing particularly complex or revolutionary about the story, but that is not always the role of a fine novel. I’ve long ago shed the idea that a novel needs to break narrative bounds to be considered a useful story. If a story is not useful—regardless of its literary achievements— it is irrelevant.
And this story is useful because it moves. The Art of Racing in the Rain is useful in showing the redeeming qualities so often overlooked of characters like Denny. And a bedtime story is designed to ‘prepare’ someone for sleep. That is, to send you on a journey where the tragedies of the world can take on a different form and the answers you seek come to you in odd manifestations. The book has this quality, as it is simple and gentle in its delivery. The mind is vulnerable and fertile in the moments before sleep and that’s where this story can flourish.
Many reviewers seem to have taken offense at their perceived idea that the story was somewhat predictable, trite, overused. One reviewer complained about the fact that the dog thought like a human. The book didn’t give the impression that it was doing something never before concocted. It felt like the stories you read before bed as a child that allowed you to enter the world’s tragedy and come out of it triumphant.
Denny is not an extraordinary character, but he is a respectable one. He is loyal, stubborn, and persistent. He takes life’s tragedies and mishaps as best as any of us could. There’s not always a lot of glamour in that. Enzo’s death, gentle and sad as it was, was the book’s final liberation. And while canine reincarnation seems to be a topic recently explored, Enzo’s gets me because he truly believes he is ready to be a man. And that, in his eyes, is the ultimate opportunity for all things beautiful. He’s right about that. What an opportunity it is.
There were other charming aspects of the book. The racing metaphors. The seemingly endless onslaught of tragedy in Denny’s life. The simple and honest guardianship of Enzo. He wanted to communicate so badly and was convinced that if only he had language he could make a difference. If Enzo only knew, sometimes it’s not enough.
And of course Enzo has dog moments. The comedic relief in the form of Enzo finding a nugget. Enzo destroying a toy because he thinks it evil. Enzo dreaming of crows. Enzo describing the wife that looks like a man. Enzo pissing on Denny’s settlement papers.
There is something hopelessly tragic about Enzo and that is his awareness that he could be better, that he wants to be better, and thinks that if only he could be human things would be far easier for him. All he can do is watch as the people he loves go through life in painful and unpredictable ways. His hope is that he knows he’ll get his chance. The difference for the reader though is, if dog comes before human and humans are the most intelligent beings; well, I guess that’s it for us then. This is the final race. Might as well drive in the rain.