Funny, loyal, protective, and smart—Enzo is everything we could want in a main character. If he were a human, he would definitely be that dimpled, bright-eyed, grinning best friend who slaps the protagonist on the back and tells him everything's going to be okay.
Enzo, however, is infinitely cuter, because he's a dog and is way more likely to lick your face than pat you on the back.
Enzo describes himself as a lab terrier mix: his mother was a lab, and he strongly believes his father was a terrier because "terriers are problem-solvers" (2.3). He's very hung up about his pedigree, which, well, kind of shows how much his soul is already on its way—even from puppyhood—to becoming human.
Think about it. We humans like to know our heritage, our culture, our family history. Not only is it important for medical records, but we also imagine it connects us as individuals to something larger than ourselves. We imagine that it connects our lives to traditions that we can carry with us and pass on to children, grandchildren, and so on. Enzo is already connecting himself, and his personal background, to a larger web of cultural distinction.
Anyway, although Enzo begins his story at the end of his life, he tells us that the day his life really began is when he first met Denny, the day Denny picked him out of a litter of puppies and bought him from a farm in Spangle, Washington. That means that Enzo needs Denny to fulfill his dog's purpose: you can't be a good dog without the right master.
Even from the first moment Denny and Enzo meet, Enzo seems to know that this moment is special. He says that when he sees Denny for the first time, he is getting "the first glimpse of the rest of my life" (2.6). If that's not meant to be, then we don't know what is.
From this moment on, Enzo learns how to be man's best friend.
One of the things that can be interesting when dealing with animal protagonists is how human-like the author makes them. Some dogs, like Snoopy, for example, are silent but clearly move and behave like people. Scooby Doo, on the other hand, is clearly a dog, but talks and behaves to some degree like a person.
Enzo is 100% dog: he can't talk, and he can't walk on his hind legs. On the other hand, he does articulate himself well, have feelings, and think like a human. Basically, Garth Stein makes the interesting decision to make Enzo think like a human and experience the full range of human emotions: it's a new take on the dog protagonist trope.
In a way, we're not surprised: we know that Enzo is on his way to being reincarnated as a human, so if there's already some overlap between dog and human souls, then it makes sense that dogs can be human-like, and humans can be dog-like.
Enzo's human-ness is something that allows him to understand the depth of the situations that Denny, Eve, and Zoë experience while acting on them, commenting on them, and observing them in his own way. He's definitely not a passive observer, either: he totally jumps in when he sees something that he needs to confront. He carries out his own brand of doggy justice and makes sure that, when necessary, his point of view comes across. After all, as he likes to remind us when needed, "Gestures are all that I have" (1.1 / 49.57).
Since Enzo is regaling us with a story that is near and dear to him—the life of his family—he is incredibly biased. This makes him something of an unreliable narrator: we can never be sure if his motives for retelling things as he does are based in a need to tell the story of his family as it truly happened, or to tell his family's story in a way that puts the people he cares about in the best light. He's not at all afraid of letting us know what he thinks of people. For example, he's happy to roast Annika and her friend the moment he sees them at the café (51.43)—and we don't mean roasting like insulting; we mean roasting on a spit.
Maybe it's a good thing that Enzo's not a person yet, since he's clearly never heard of "due process" or "innocent until proven guilty."
But Enzo is only human. Err, maybe we should put "human" in quotations, because he is still a dog. But whatever: opposable thumbs or no, we do have to admit that Enzo's trying. He learns constantly—even without realizing it—how to think, act, and evolve like his humans. Denny is his biggest inspiration, and without consciously stating it aloud, he does adopt a lot of Denny's behaviors and tendencies, like his distrust of strangers, his quick thinking and snap decision-making, and, of course, his love for racing.
Enzo is an impressionable character, navigating the human world he inhabits with the help of his family.
For all the time Enzo spends watching his family and commenting on their antics, of course, his story is as much about him as it is about them. Their lives affect him, and their decisions affect him—like the time Eve and Zoë leave him for three days and he hallucinates about demon zebra. In many ways, Enzo is a direct product of the world he inhabits. Enzo imprints on his human family and adopts their ways of thinking and looking at the world. He also learns a little bit about being human from each of them.
When Enzo and Eve first meet, there's no doubt that the two of them don't necessarily get along. Enzo's way jealous of Eve's opposable thumbs, and of how she's the opposite of everything he is. She's clean, she smells good, and she spends time on her appearance. Enzo probably would too, if he could. We blame his lack of opposable thumbs.
It takes Eve and Enzo some time to figure out that they can share Denny and still get along, but once they do, Eve becomes as much a part of Enzo's life as Denny is, in her own way. Enzo learns to love her as much as Denny does, and for Eve's part, she loves Enzo right back.
Enzo steps in for Denny when he can't be around; he serves as Eve's symbolic link to Denny when he's off racing and her guard when she's frightened by her illness. He's like a living, breathing security blanket, but way cuter.
Eve also teaches Enzo that humanity comes at a cost, and that not everything about being human is fun and games. Being a human involves pain and suffering as well as the freedom to walk on two legs and have opposable thumbs. Enzo says he gets this. He also says that women and dogs share the trait of experiencing pain more acutely, so that's why he can connect with Eve during her illness.
It might sound weird to say, but Eve's biggest lesson to Enzo involves her death. That death teaches him what the threshold for human emotion really is—and where his own capacity to handle that emotion ends. Eve's death hits Enzo hard, so hard that he decides he can't handle feeling human emotions and actively reverts back into his baser self to get away from that sadness.
He also eats a squirrel.
Too bad we all can't just ignore our sadness by eating a squirrel.
…Although that would mean we'd have to eat a squirrel, and that sounds worse than just dealing with whatever's weighing us down.
Anyway, Eve's death also teaches Enzo just how strong humans are. It shows him how much we can go through, and how much we can persevere, even when it seems like the world is against us.
Even though Zoë is in Enzo's life for a fairly short amount of time, their bond is a strong as peanut butter and jelly. It's Enzo's bond with Eve, of course, that leads to his later bond with Zoë: he watches Eve's pregnancy with a sense of confusion and wonder, and hopes against hope that the baby will look like him.
Yeah, that's not going to happen, Enzo. Zoë doesn't have any water dog on her mother's side or terrier on her father's, but we appreciate your enthusiasm.
At first, Zoë is Enzo's biggest fear—and biggest obstacle—because she represents a family that Eve and Denny are building together that Enzo fears won't include him. His fears are put to rest immediately once Zoë is born: Eve and Enzo share a moment of understanding during Zoë's birth, when Eve asks Enzo to protect Zoë.
From that point on, Enzo sees himself as Zoë's older brother, entering her world of make believe and acting as a supportive friend and confidante. He takes his protector role quite seriously, and he protects Zoë form a world she doesn't understand as she tries to grapple concepts that are too big for her. He also adopts an imaginative streak—like his ability to think up anthropomorphic stuffed animals—from Zoë.
He's like a doggy avenger, just without a cape, and with a lot more fur.
Zoë teaches Enzo patience, bravery, and strength in times of turmoil, and she's especially good for leaving food dropped on the floor. Most importantly, Zoë teaches Enzo that change isn't all that scary, because what started out as something he didn't entirely understand became someone he loves very much, who makes his and Denny and Eve's life better, and who adds happiness to their home.
Of all of his doggy family members, Denny is the one that started it all for Enzo. Without Denny, Enzo wouldn't be part of a family, he wouldn't have such a love of racing or television, and he wouldn't even be named Enzo.
And we don't think "Buddy" has the same ring to it.
Enzo knows Denny the best out of all his family members, since he's been with Denny the longest. Enzo has experienced bachelorhood with Denny and has gone through a marriage, a pregnancy, a death, and all the other high and low periods in Denny's life. And through it all, Enzo adores him. Enzo knows how special Denny is, how great of a racer and how smart and capable he is. He's not only Denny's pet—he's his friend, and he's infinitely proud of all of Denny's accomplishments.
Enzo's also honest, though, and he's not afraid to be sassy and judgmental when necessary. Even though he loves his family, especially Denny, he's not above letting them know when he's thinks they've done something stupid. In Chapter 36, for example, when Denny feels like he's hit rock bottom and resorts to alcohol to cope with the fact that he's losing his daughter, Enzo lays down the judgment, in the only way he can, by barking at Denny and abandoning him, to let Denny know that hitting the bottle is not the way to solve his problems. Denny takes the hint.
More than anyone else in Enzo's family, Denny teaches Enzo patience and perseverance—and how to pee outside. Enzo learns from Denny not only the art of racing a car but also the art of living. And as it turns out, the skills required for both are pretty interchangeable. A driver, like a human, has to be selfless, has to predict the road ahead and plan ahead for the best. Denny also shows Enzo that sometimes the odds aren't in your favor and you have to work with the hand you're dealt to make the best of things.
Enzo also learns from Denny what it means to be human. He learns, by observing how Denny handles Eve's death and the subsequent lawsuit and custody battle, that humans have a huge wealth of strength and determination, and that some of them pretty good at coming together when times get troubling. Denny teaches Enzo that when the going gets though, humans willing to fight tooth and nail for what's right, no opposable thumb required.
Although, full disclosure, opposable thumbs really do help.
So for someone who doesn't have a human life, Enzo sure knows a lot about how to navigate one.
Which brings us to the ending of the novel—and the potential ambiguity of the conclusion.
We know, we don't love talking about it either, but come on, we have to.
Does Enzo achieve human-hood at the end? Was his soul ready? Throughout the book, it's clear that he's trying to get there, to do everything he can to be ready to become a good person in his next life. But in the first chapter, when he "acts" sick for Denny, he's a little afraid when it works too well and Denny calls up Mike to tell him that he might have to take Enzo to the vet for a one-way trip.
That's both exactly what Enzo had in mind and also completely not what he had in mind.
So what does it about Enzo that at the end of his life he starts to have doubts, wondering if he's squandered his doggy life in anticipation of something he's decided is better, partly by virtue of its being different?
We think it's a pretty clear indication that his soul has become fully human, or as close to human as a dog soul could get. Humans are full of self-doubt, and in this moment, Enzo is doubting his will to die—not because he's afraid, but because he's going to miss Denny and Zoë and their adventures. He's afraid of all that he won't see, and all that he won't experience.
Another human sentiment that Enzo experiences here is understanding, specifically the understanding that it's time for him to say goodbye to Denny, despite his own fears and doubts. He's willing to be selfless enough to let go of his life and his old dog body so that Denny can thrive, which is an incredibly selfless expression of love, and one that we'd like to think is pretty human.
Enzo's soul's been building up on its humanness throughout his lifetime, and this final moment with Denny is the clearest sign that he's fully reached it and will become a human in his next life. Need more proof? We think Denny meeting a little boy named Enzo who tells him "your car goes where your eyes go" is all the evidence we need.
We just hope opposable thumbs are as great as Enzo thinks they are.