There are no two-ways about it; this book isn't light and fluffy. The going gets rough and ruff. There's a lot of dense, emotionally draining stuff here, and without knowing when the light at the end of the tunnel is going to shine through, the finish line feels farther and farther away. Patience is a virtue, though, and after following Denny through his long and perilous journey, he, Enzo, and we are all rewarded for our efforts.
The genre for this book is interesting, because it is both an autobiography and a biography, but a fictional one.
Confused? So were we, but hear us out.
Enzo, the central narrator of his own story, is telling us about his life in this house of humans. But he's also telling us about the lives of his loved ones, Denny, Eve, and Zoë, including all their human shenanigans.
Since his life is so closely tied with theirs, and since he can't really do anything without them, Enzo's story could never be separate from theirs. While Enzo is absolutely a biased narrator, and while his biographical depictions of his humans are a bit skewed, no one is in a better position to talk about the inner workings of his family than he is.
Enzo's narration provides a unique perspective on Denny's life, since we're witnessing Denny's inner workings and hearing some of his internal monologue without fully getting into his head.
That leaves a lot to speculation. Enzo states that he doesn't have the ability to follow Denny into the doctor's office or the courtroom, so a lot of what he learns is drawn from his own conclusions, bits of information that he picks up from other people and during overheard conversations, and television. He also breaks the fourth wall of narration to tell us this stuff, which makes us feel special because it seems like he's talking directly to us.
For example, during the courtroom scene, especially, Enzo reminds us that they don't allow dogs in court:
Thus, the trial commenced. At least in my mind. I won't give you all the details because I don't know them. I wasn't there because I am a dog, and dogs are not allowed in court. The only impression I have of the trail are the fantastic images and scenes I invented in my dreams. (56.5)
He doesn't sound bitter at all, does he?
This is a nifty narrative strategy, given the fact that it gives us both a complete and an incomplete story. Just as Enzo meets Denny as an already fully formed adult, he doesn't get to live the entirety of Denny's life with him, and there are things that he misses out on.
Well, we just made ourselves sad.
We hope you didn't think this was nonfiction. Unless you know something we don't know about dogs and their ability to talk, in which case, please tell us, because that's pretty cool.
The Art of Racing in the Rain. Definitely more creative than A Dog's Life or Where the Racetrack Ends.
But what does it mean?
As with all things that require any form of skill, racing could be called an art. Racing in the rain is even more of an art: it's dangerous and should be left to the professionals, especially if you're driving a racecar that can go super fast and turn corners on a dime. If you've ever driven in the rain, you know that it's not as easy as it looks. You really need to have a feeling for how that car works, and how you can maneuver it in difficult conditions.
Racing in the rain is also, cleverly, a metaphor for life.
It's clear, if we pay attention to Denny's internal journey, that navigating through the rough patches life throws our way is also an art form. You have to learn to understand yourself, the conditions, the possibilities, even the small movements that could change everything. You have to be there, in the moment, always. Reaching the finish line with your racecar intact—either on the racetrack itself or, metaphorically, in life—requires some finesse.
Yeah, we all knew it was coming, but it still made us bawl like the scene in The Lion King when Mufasa dies. Animal deaths are sad: it's a truth universally acknowledged. So when Enzo finally leaves Denny's side, we don't know what to expect. But there's an epilogue, so surely something else has to happen, right?
The final chapter takes place from Denny's perspective, since Enzo can't narrate anymore. (Don't remind us.) Denny and Zoë are in Italy, having a grand old time, because Denny is the new Formula One champion—a feat practically unheard of for a man his age.
Then Denny meets a father and a little boy who, surprise, just happens to be named Enzo.
We see what you're doing, book, and we're on to you.
We also know the question on everyone's mind: is this new Enzo the real Enzo? Did our Enzo achieve the coveted personhood he was waiting for? It's never explicitly stated one way or the other, but Denny seems to recognize something in the boy and even tells his father, "'Mi scuzi…Your son reminds me of a good friend of mine'" (Conclusion, 31).
Then little human Enzo trots out the one thing that makes us start bawling again. He looks at Denny and tells him, in Italian, "The car goes where the eyes go" (Conclusion, 39).
That's it. That's all the proof we need. Now excuse us while we empty this box of tissues.
No, this book isn't a giant Washington cliché. We don't see any hipsters drinking cold brews out of mason jars or talking about the irony of things, and Denny doesn't wear large frame glasses and flannel shirts. Or, well, he might wear flannel shirts, because flannel shirts are comfortable, but if he does, it's not mentioned.
Since this is book is probably set in Washington in mid to late 90s or early 2000s, the hipster movement hasn't quite kicked in yet. And you know, since Enzo is a dog, he probably wouldn't really care about fashion or culture movements unless they pertained to his family, and these folks aren't particularly into it.
Utilizing Washington as the setting for this story seems less a matter of convention than of preference, we think. Since Garth Stein lives in Seattle with his family, and since people always tell authors that they should write about what they know (somewhat questionable advice, but whatever), he probably modeled Enzo's setting after his own home. Smart move, because it means he could have his art imitate his life.
What is interesting about the setting itself is what Enzo chooses to highlight and focus on. He mentions houses and apartments and can vaguely distinguish between the differing social statuses of Denny's friends and family, but he doesn't hone in on it much more than that.
Instead, Enzo focuses on the beauty of Denny Park or the beach, the feeling of going for a walk with the misting rain sticking to his whiskers, or his love of wide open spaces and water views, since he is part water dog on his mother's side (4.1).
Through Enzo's description of the setting, we get a pretty good picture of the world he and the Swift family inhabit, and of how the weather affects their moods and actions, and, on occasion—usually when it snows—how it affects what happens to them. All in all, Washington sounds like a nice place to live. Maybe not so much now that it has a hipster infestation problem, but in ten, fifteen years, who knows?
With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.
— Ayrton Senna
We could be snappy and point out that this is a quote from a famous racer and leave it at that, but that's not how we roll.
It's true that Ayrton Senna was a famous racer—one Enzo mentions by name—but there's more to it than that. The quote applies to racing, true, but it also applies to Denny's racing career, his life, and to Enzo's aspirations to achieve human-hood.
Think about it. Denny, as a racecar driver, knows that the race is never won on luck alone. It takes strategy, skill, planning, and knowing your opponents. These key factors, and the fact that Denny studies what he does for a living, makes him a good racer, and ultimately a Formula One champion.
These facets of his personality—his tenacity, his focus, his ability to see the road ahead and play the long game—also keep him, for the most part, from buckling under the pressure of those long, miserable three years while his court case is under way. And in the moments when he does almost buckle, he has Enzo by his side to support him and remind him of what's important.
Speaking of Enzo, the epigraph also applies to him. His whole life's goal is to prepare himself to become a man in his next life, to prove to himself that he can be a good person—and to prove to himself that he is ready. This preparation also takes focus, an understanding of the way the human world works, and a great deal of patience.
Stein's writing is snappy, eloquent, and thoughtful. Enzo is a narrator who really gets down into the meat and potatoes of human existence. For someone who isn't human, he sure is good at separating the important from the mundane and telling us what we really need to know about living good human lives. He's also good at judging people he thinks are human-ing wrong.
Nevertheless, this story isn't always as sweet as finding scraps from dinner on the kitchen floor. There are two death scenes, and for readers who find character deaths upsetting, that's something to be aware of going in. Both scenes are well written, but our eyes watered a little—okay, a lot— all the same.
It's hard to imagine how dogs think, and until we know for sure, the possibilities for speculation are almost endless. Do their thoughts come out in disjointed fragments, or in their own personal dog vernacular? Do they start every word with the letter "R," or do they have almost no vocabulary? Maybe they talk in code through the wagging of their tails, or maybe their barks are encoded.
Garth Stein must have himself wondered about it all when he was crafting this story, and the effect of choosing such a refined style for Enzo makes him that much easier to relate to. It also makes him a humorous and engaging narrator.
Enzo is a very articulate dog. He takes the time to show us that he knows a thing or two about pop culture and human forms of entertainment. His language tends toward the eloquent when he talks about his own emotions or when he is pondering the state of the world—he himself would use "pondering" over "thinking about"—and he loves to draw parallels between racing and human life.
Enzo doesn't feel the need to over-describe everything around him. He minimally describes settings and people—just enough to set the scene—and spends more time on emotional states, his own and those of the people around him. Since he can't always know everything about what's going on around him, some events are ambiguous, while others seem so clean-cut and obvious it's hard to wonder what the humans around him are even thinking.
Stein has no problem giving Enzo a clear bias toward his family, and as such, Enzo also tends toward the dramatic when something upsets him.
He's certainly not afraid to speak up when something doesn't feel right. In an Enzo moment that does a great job of showcasing his personality, he describes Annika, sitting at a coffee shop with her friend:
At Bauhaus, she sat at an outdoor table with another girl. At this hip and cool coffee shop in our neighborhood, she sat drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes! She was at least seventeen by now, possibly eighteen, and was legally allowed to function in society on her own. Technically, she could sit in any coffee shop in any city and stew in her wretchedness. I couldn't stop her. But I didn't have to deal with her—immature finger pointer, inflictor of wounds! (51.12)
We hope all dogs are that dramatic, because it's both adorable and hilarious.
This may come as a surprise to you, but there's a little bit of racing in this book.
We know. We had no idea, either.
There's literal racing—Denny drives racecars for a living—and then there are moments when racing is used as a metaphor to describe the way Denny is handling a situation. This is most apparent when Enzo pulls back in his narration to describe the racer as a creature in the abstract, or when he's applying a saying that Denny has taught him about racing to Denny's own life.
In fact, the most prevalent and important quote of the book—"Your car goes where your eyes go" (14.1)—is basically a dual metaphor for the novel as a whole. In racing, when you're steering a car, your car literally goes where your eyes take it, since when driving as a responsible driver you are maintaining the speed, velocity, and direction of the vehicle. It's the movements of your body, which are directly related to the movements of your consciousness, that steer the car.
Look at that: we're not just a study guide—we're a driving guide. too.
It's the same with life, where you're driving your own metaphorical car. You are in charge of the paths you take, and your car is likely to follow where you set your sights, or your goals.
No wonder racing is such a great metaphor for life.
For a book that takes place in Washington, there sure is a lot of talk about zebras. It's not even like this book takes place in a zoo.
The first time we see the striped menace is when Enzo is home alone after Eve and Zoë have run off without him. We can't tell if Enzo is having a hallucination, or if this zebra has magically come to life to destroy everything in Zoë's room. In fact, it's something we're that unclear to us to this day. Either way, Denny, Eve, and Zoë come home to find the toys destroyed, with Enzo crying zebra.
The zebra comes back, though, again and again. Once, it appears in Zoë's room in her grandparents' house. Later, it appears in the pen that Mike hands Denny when he's preparing the sign the settlement papers. It's then that Enzo realizes that the zebra isn't a real animal that parades around and destroys people's lives: it's actually a metaphor for our own demons, the wickedness that plagues us and causes us to act on our baser instincts.
So…the zebra isn't real? Does that mean Enzo ripped up the toys, or not?
When he thinks of the zebra dancing near Eve, Enzo's really talking about her fear of death, and the fear of the malignant thing inside her brain that's trying to destroy her. When he sees the zebra in Mike's pen, he realizes that Denny wouldn't be signing those settlement papers if he were using his best judgment; it just that he's been so beaten down by Maxwell and Trish that he's at his wits' end.
As Enzo says, "I suddenly realized. The zebra. It is not something outside of us. The zebra is inside of us. Our fears. Our own self-destructive natures. The zebra is the worst part of us when we are face-to-face with our own worst times. The demon is us!" (49.27)
This probably means that Enzo really did demolish Zoë's stuffed animals that fateful night, but he was probably suffering from extreme hunger, so we have to forgive him. Besides, he was totally contrite when he asked for Zoë's forgiveness, and that counts.
That also means we can definitely blame the zebra the next time we accidentally stay up too late watching Netflix or forget to wash the dishes.
Fun fact: the Greeks believed that birds, usually birds of prey, were bad omens sent by Zeus to indicate bad times ahead. Enzo probably doesn't know this about Greek mythology, but he too fears crows.
Crows aren't an incredibly prevalent omen throughout the book, but they are there, and they do show up right around the time that Eve begins to feel the pain in her brain. So, for Enzo, they serve as nightmare fuel, symbols of bad things to come.
"Sometimes when I have nightmares, I dream of crows. A murder of them. Attacking me ruthlessly, tearing me to shreds. It is the worst" (13.3).
That sounds like a huge understatement, Enzo.
Enzo's fear of crows ties in to his fear of bad things happening in his own life. He can't control crows, and he never chases them. He thinks they're smart. They're also strategic when they attack, especially when they're attacking Denny and Eve's forgotten groceries that were left on the porch. Like all things that are unknown and scary, crows represent whatever hides in the shadows and attacks without warning.
Because Enzo is a dog, it makes sense for him to assign an abstract fear to something real and equally terrible, like crows.
The fact that crows are called "a murder" also doesn't help…
Is it weird to say "first person" when our narrator is a dog? Maybe "first dog" would make more sense?
Anyway, this story is told simultaneously with a first person central narrator and a first person peripheral narrator. It sounds a little confusing, but believe us, it works.
Enzo is reporting his life story and the life story of his family. He uses first-person central narration when talking about his own feelings and reactions to things, but then he also uses the role of peripheral narrator when he's talking about his family. Basically, Enzo may be the center of his own story, but he's a peripheral character in the story of the humans, which he's also telling.
Enzo's peripheral narration can leave us just as frustrated as Enzo is: he can't ask what Denny was thinking when he took Annika home, for example, nor can he ask why Eve disliked doctors so much, even though we would love to know the answers to these questions.
This mix of narration and retelling ends up creating some hilarious, witty, or poignant moments, like when Enzo tells us that he knows that Denny could keep going with the custody battle: "How did Denny sustain himself for the duration of this ordeal? He had a secret. His daughter was better and quicker and smarter than he was. And while the Evil Twins may have restricted his ability to see her, he received all the energy he needed to maintain his focus" (42.24).
Enzo's observations make for some great commentary, like when he calls Maxwell and Trish the "Evil Twins" and declares that Denny should roast Annika on a spit.