The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

Sawtelle cvr

We’ve had A Thousand Acres, King Lear transposed to Iowa, now we have The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark set in northern Wisconsin (this is not a spoiler because the blurb gives away key elements that shout ‘that’s just like Hamlet!’).  The omens when picking the novel up were good, with an endorsement by Stephen King on the back promising to read it a second time and a roundel on the front proclaiming it an ‘Oprah’s Book Club 2008 Selection’, and it is clear why it should be such a popular hit despite its 560-page length.  It is a winning chunk of Americana, one in which, despite being set in the early 1970s, the Vietnam War does not intrude its ugly head; a link to classic literature; dogs – lots of dogs – with fantastic characters; tragedy (of course, it’s Hamlet after all); and a blazing finale.

So, how does it relate to Hamlet?  We have young Edgar Sawtelle in the Hamlet role.  Admittedly he’s not called Hamlet, but that would be a bit obvious, and he does have the same name as his dad, in the same way Hamlet shared his father’s name, Sawtelle senior being known as ‘Gar’.  Why ‘Edgar’ is not clear, though it may be an obscure nod to King Lear, and there is a blinding from quicklime in the face, though the recipient is not Edgar’s father, nor a character bearing a resemblance to Gloucester.  Mum and Uncle are more straightforward: Edgar’s mother is called Trudy (ie Gertrude) and his uncle is Claude, which is close enough to Claudius.  Gar, Trudy and Edgar run a dog-breeding business started by Edgar’s grandfather which selectively breeds highly intelligent animals known, with what must stand for typical Wisconsin originality, as ‘Sawtelle Dogs’.  The records of these superb animals are maintained with a care that would befit a royal family.

Other characters occupy the same relationships to the Sawtelles as those in Hamlet.  Polonius becomes Dr Page Papineau, vet and minority stakeholder in the dog-breeding enterprise.  Dr Papineau’s dim son Glen is obviously Laertes, out for revenge when it all goes wrong.  And what of Ophelia?  Rather cleverly Ophelia is played by a dog, Almondine, who has been Edgar’s boon companion from babyhood, which strictly speaking ought to make her more Horatio.  At intervals Edgar encounters a dog living wild, Forte, and at the end a number of the Sawtelle dogs escape and meet Forte as they are poised to forge their own destiny, so in a loose sense Forte is Fortinbras come to claim the kingdom.

At the beginning of the novel we see someone, who is later revealed to be Claude, buying an extremely powerful poison in South Korea in 1952, and after a long absence he returns to the family farm on which he and Gar grew up and murders his brother (employing a more reliable hypodermic rather than by pouring it into Gar’s ear), then starting a relationship with Trudy and usurping his brother’s place in both the house and wife’s bed.  Naturally Edgar is unhappy and makes his dislike of the situation clear, though he proves himself more decisive than Hamlet does in similar circumstances.  As a result of that overt hostility, and Claude’s Machiavellianism, the tragedy starts to unfold.

There are many parallels between play and novel.  Edgar sees his father’s ghost in the rain and discovers that his death was Claude’s doing.  Edgar accidentally knocks Dr Papineau down the stairs thinking it is Claude, an equivalent fate to Polonius’s.  Glen becomes unstable after his father’s death, and Claude works on him to persuade him that Edgar was at fault.  The playlet in which the actors mime King Hamlet’s death becomes a demonstration of canine learning in which Edgar coaches the dogs to perform a routine involving a syringe and a dog ‘playing dead’, showing Claude that Edgar is aware of his guilt.  In particular the death of Almondine, when she comes off second-best in an encounter with a lorry, though not suicide, is poignant, even while the reader is musing that Sawtelle dogs can’t be quite as smart as we’ve been led to believe.

But there are differences too.  For a start Edgar is a nicer character than Hamlet.  Edgar runs away after the accidental death of Dr Papineau, rather than being sent away by Claude as Hamlet is dispatched to England by Claudius.  The deceased Gar doesn’t badger Edgar to kill Claude; in fact his ghost only turns up once, though Edgar later has conversations with another ghost in a barn he is clearing out on a property where he is given sanctuary by Henry, who becomes a disinterested friend, as Horatio is to Hamlet.  This central section moves away from the source text as we follow Edgar’s wanderings following Dr Papineau’s death, evoking more The Jungle Book, Edgar’s favourite childhood reading. The play’s climactic duel is replaced by mayhem in the barn which wreaks the same sort of result on the dramatis personae as in the play.  The major difference is that while Hamlet is the soul of eloquence, Edgar is mute and communicates mainly by sign language.

Wroblewski’s writing is beautifully wrought at times, though occasionally tending to the purplish, and the natural world is particularly well observed, but the pace is very slow, with in particular rather more detail on the care and breeding of dogs than the reader might care to know.  There are a few elements that could have been trimmed: the extracts from his grandfather’s lengthy correspondence about breeding the ‘next generation’ of dogs that Edgar comes across, and the farmer’s ghost in the Henry’s barn, for example.  Wroblewski has too often concentrated on the language, and paid less attention to the leanness of the story.  Despite this flaw, and while knowing the plot of Hamlet robs the story of much of its suspense, the characters are engaging, and Trudy’s motives in forming a relationship with Claude in turn show Gertrude in the play – unsympathetically viewed through Hamlet’s unhappiness – in a more compassionate light.

But just why Wroblewski felt the need to utilise the Shakespearian scaffolding is puzzling as he is a strong writer, albeit an undisciplined one, and could have written a novel with an original storyline.  Perhaps he thought the allusions would give it more gravitas, but instead his approach feels like insecurity.  His commitment to shadowing Hamlet raises a puzzle: Claude buys the mystery poison in 1952 and hangs on to it for a couple of decades before using it (fortunately Gar’s autopsy points to a brain aneurysm, which means no awkward questions arise).  Did he always mean to come back to the family home and use it on Gar in order to take back the business in which he had sold his stake?  If so, why did he wait so long?

The biggest contrast between Edgar Sawtelle and Hamlet is that while the play’s ending has an air of tragic inevitability about it, Edgar unbelievably lets his guard down when his uncle enters the burning barn at the climax, ostensibly to assist his nephew in rescuing the documentation for the dogs but in reality to retrieve the bottle of poison he has secreted in a filing cabinet.  This gives Claude the opportunity to serve Edgar as he had his father (though it does him no good because he then hangs around long enough for an impersonal justice to catch up with him).  Edgar underestimates Claude, which seems improbable by this stage, and dies essentially because he wanted to save the paperwork.  Shakespeare that isn’t.

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