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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Friday, October 16, 2009

Edgar Sawtelle - my review

If you are looking for a pick-me-up DO NOT buy this book. I'm borrowing a Southpark line, "You killed Edgar you bastard!"

This book had the potential to be one of the best books ever and it turned out to be a total waste of time. For the first time in my life, I actually regret spending my hard-earned money on a book. I just want to know who the editor was and what the hell the publisher was thinking when s/he gave the green light for publication of this book.

Admittedly, there are some points in the story that are absolutely mesmerizing. I particularly liked the chapter entitled, 'Almondine'. The anthropomorphic descriptions were great but, in the end, difficult to believe. I love my dog Poe but I just do not see his deep philosophical thought processes behind those coffee colored eyes.

Also, the story about Henry's kindness could so easily have been a turning point. In short, he gets robbed, puts the kid and dogs up for a while and ends up with two expensive dogs for his troubles.

Unfortunately, the book is really a tragedy that has been marketed as a coming-of age-story. That's why I bought the book and that's why I felt ripped off. These are tough economic times so, I must admit, I was looking for a book about redemption. I wanted to read about a hero who overcame great odds and, if it included a little bit of magical realism then so be it. Disappointingly, the author tipped his toe in the water but never just jumped in any of the pools he dabbled in.

According to the jacket, there are breath-taking descriptions that are pervasive throughout the book. In reality, the book has a smattering of descriptions of the variety alluded to in the jacket. Who is the person that wrote such a specious jacket synopsis anyway? Probably the same kind of dolt who writes obituaries in some local rag.

There were several places where word usage was a bit pedantic and sentence structure clunked - so much so that I had to re-read quite a few sentences in order to get the gist of their meaning. At one point I wondered if Wroblewski's phrasing meant to mimic the sentence structure of a deaf person (however, since Edgar is mute and not deaf, I conclude his sentence structure would be like that of a hearing person - then again, I don't sign) but it didn't seem to happen with any regularity, The clunky wording just seemed to happen randomly.

I found the first two hundred pages a bit cumbersome at times and found myself pushing through in anticipation of what was yet to come. While the book did seem to pick up after the half-way point, it got better. Then it seemed to consume itself - much as the fire did at the end. There were too many loose ends to my liking. For instance, the notion that Claude got away with murder didn't set well with me. Yes, he did die in the fire but, how would the rest of his world ever really know to what extent was actually involved in his brother's demise?

I don't necessarily like books that end 'happy.' However, I don't like books that breach a topic and fail to address it either. For me, that is where this work falls. It is loose on the paranormal breaches. They titillate but in the end, they seem to be added for effect and no real purpose. I am still left scratching my head over the old man's ghost in the barn; he spoke with great technical detail to Edgar but remained silent and failed to come through with any advice when Edgar sought it.

I understand Wroblewski's (and many other authors for that matter)desire to establish his own, unique voice. I understand that he wants his work to stand out alone and not be dismissed simply as another story that echoes Shakespeare. I also understand his contention that the story of Edgar Sawtelle is one that preexisted Shakespeare's Hamlet and yet, there is something disingenuous about his claim as he seems to follow a Shakespearean formula with one difference - Wrobleswki's ending. Ironically, the work is kind of like the mysterious poison. Shakespeare is Wroblewski's poison to be handled delicately, used to achieve a selfish end, destructive by its very nature and capable of causing death even when it is disposed of.

It is still Shakespeare but different - somewhat akin to plucking off the flower from the stem and grafting another flower in its place. There is something oddly displeasing about putting a dandelion on a rose stem.

Reading Wroblewski is like going to a four star restaurant and having the chef deliberately sabotage the dessert by piling on a load of salt - ostensibly (in accordance with the author's attached interview responses in the back of the book) because he wants to shake his fist at the universe to declare that he is unique. Plainly put there are stories that are timeless and, there are stories that are not stories at all. The Sawtelle family started out as an uninteresting,simple family whose lives were carefully documented and then summarily dispensed of so that they would once again disappear into obscurity.

No lesson. Nothing. Well, maybe one; guys whose names include the letters 'g-a-r' are doomed to die by poisoning. How did Shakespeare say it? I'll paraphrase - something about strutting and fretting on the stage - a story told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Doubtless, David Wroblewski has some definite skill in describing his subjects with enviable creativity however, With an ending like that, perhaps sticking to computer programming is better advised. Why tell such a beautiful story and then sabotage it with such a sloppy ending?

Why would anyone who had the potential to reach out to his audience squander such a golden opportunity? I have stated my reason for buying the book and now, I feel like the victim of a 'bait and switch' swindle.

The ending is as enigmatic as Claude's character and, because of that, I say, keep your day job Wroblewski. I'm going to have a tough time parting with my money to purchase any more of your books.

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