'The Story of Edward Sawtelle' by David Wroblewski

Boy's battle for survival drives compelling debut

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In Robert Coover's 1968 novel, "The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.," the title character, a disappointed accountant, spends his solitary nights immersed in his own world, manipulating a kind of fantasy baseball league of his own creation wherein every action is determined by throws of the dice.

It is a terrific novel, but even if you did not like it you would be fascinated by the complexities of the baseball league and the lives of its players.

   
"THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE"

By David Wroblewski
Ecco ($25.95)

   

David Wroblewski, too, has written a terrific novel wherein chance too often is the deciding factor. And even if you don't like it, you will be fascinated by the magnificent dogs and the complex system of their training created by the title character's family.

Not that there is any reason you would not like it. A debut novel such as this does not come along often. While its 562-page length may seem daunting, it is by no means wearisome and is necessary to its telling.

Edgar Sawtelle is the only child of Gar and Trudy Sawtelle, operators of a dog-breeding business in northern Wisconsin on the edge of the Chequamegon Forest, near where the author himself grew up.

Born mute in 1958, Edgar uses sign language not only with his parents but with the dogs, one of the many subtle paranormal and spooky elements that add to the attraction of the novel.

Obviously, he is not an ordinary boy and these are not ordinary dogs. The business was started by his late grandfather, John Sawtelle, whose principle of dog-breeding is nothing like that of standard breeders.

In a method continued by his son and grandson, John used mutts and strays -- dogs he simply liked for valuable characteristics he saw in them. Wroblewski so meticulously describes their training, designed to make them companions that not merely obey, but understand why they should obey.

It is a largely self-contained world with minimal interactions with the larger world beyond the farm and the nearby town of Mellen. Edgar has almost no life other than the farm and the dogs.

Still, it is a pleasant existence until, in the early 1970s when Edgar is about 14, his long-lost Uncle Claude -- his father's brother -- turns up. In fact, he made his first appearance, unidentified, in a creepy prologue set in South Korea in 1952 involving a mysterious, highly poisonous substance.

Echoes of this short prologue will resound again and again. There are many mysteries in this novel, and Claude is one of them. It is up to you to decide whether he is evil, amoral or simply badly bent.

With his entrance, the novel takes on its background theme of "Hamlet." Edgar's father dies under peculiar circumstances, his mother (think "Gertrude") takes up with his uncle (think "Claudius") and Edgar begins to suspect him of murder.

When Edgar accidentally becomes involved in the death of a friend of the family, he lights out in panic for the Chequamegon, accompanied by three dogs. The Chequamegon episode is the best of several really good extended scenes. In the last 100 pages or so, the plot ratchets up into a truly tension-filled thriller that, with "Hamlet" as the background, can only end in tragedy. Sad, perhaps, but the novel is what it must be.


Roger K. Miller, a former book-review editor of the Milwaukee Journal, is a freelance writer and reviewer in Wisconsin.


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