A Magnificent Sprawl

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski


Quite often it’s the flawed novels that stick to your ribs, not those approaching literary perfection, and this book is a great, magnificently flawed novel that I’ll find hard to forget.

The story is one of the Sawtelle family, principally son Edgar, who was born without an ability to speak. The family train and sell dogs, and part of the story’s charm is the practiced interplay between Edgar and his student-dogs. But father Gar dies suddenly under what later prove to be suspicious circumstances, and Edgar and mother Trudy carry on the family business – until Uncle Claude slithers in to complicate life for Edgar. Edgar runs away and stays away for months, during which time Claude beds Trudy. Edgar finally does return, intent on proving Claude culpable in Gar’s death, and that sets in motion Wroblewski’s tense  but overwrought end to the story.

If this all too brief synopsis seems vaguely familiar, it should be. Hint: think Shakespeare. It that doesn’t do it for you, think Denmark.


But what do I see as flawed about this ultra-inventive novel? First, one has to read to mid-book before it becomes clear that the author is taking the story somewhere. And then there’s the too-long stay in the woods and on the road. Such storyline doldrums lead me to believe that Wroblewski has turned writer’s block on its head by writing until a story begins to emerge.

If I seem unfair to the author, let me list the book’s assets. Wroblewski’s prose style nears perfection, and I put his writerly voice up there with Cormac McCarthy, his ability to evoke mood alongside Steinbeck and Guterson. In various sections, he paces with the greats, and his ability to build tension is breathtaking. Wroblewski has magnificent literary chops in this novel, but such abilities can be a burden as well as an asset. If he can tame his storytelling tools, he’ll be among the greats.


My rating: 16 of 20 stars



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