Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I've been reading a Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. Matt Kirby recommended it. I picked it up as a Kindle book in oversized font. I got it cheap, for under four dollars. Additionally, it didn't have digital rights management. I had indicated on Matt's blog (Kirbside) that one of my favorite books I read last year was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I don't think he understood why --- I noted that it had won the National Book Award --- and he indicated that for a post-apocalyptic narrative there wasn't much better than Canticle for Leibowitz. So I told him I would read it and agreed to tell him if I liked The Road better, to tell him why. He was bemoaning the fact that many stories don't get the recognition some do undeservedly, suggesting that The Road received the National Book Award recognition undeservedly.

For my readers group this month, I read The Story of Edward Sawtelle. Now if that had been the book Matt was complaining about getting recognition it didn't deserve, I would agree with him. Fully. As I understand it, Walter Miller only published one novel during his lifetime,

The Story of Edward Sawtelle is a first novel for its author, David Wroblewski. Wroblewski has a great future as a writer, I believe, if he keeps at it and learns from his mistakes here. There are flashes of brilliance in his narrative. But it appears he has had more support than he deserves with this first novel, and it will be difficult for him to overcome pride and approach his next project with humility.

Needless to say, I didn't enjoy his first novel much at all. For several reasons. I didn't believe that the characters were realistically drawn. The protagonist, Edgar Sawtelle, seemed as mute as his vocal chords. The antagonist, Claude Sawtelle, was so evil he made the book a matter of bathos instead of pathos. The minor characters didn't seem internally consistent. The motivation of the characters was almost always nonexistent or wholly inadequate.

Early on in the book we have this incident: "Edward was shocked to find words inside the walls of his house, scrawled by a man no one had ever seen. It made him want to peel open every wall, see what might be written along the roofline, under the stairs, above the doors. In time, by thought alone, Edgar constructed an image of Schulz [the prior owner of the property] so detailed he needn't even squint his eyes to call it up. Most important of all, he understood why Shultz had so mysteriously abandoned the farm: he'd grown lonely."

Wroblewski drew Edgar so insightful and creative early on but the boy ended up inconsistent, unable to cope with his circumstances and to figure out how to combat his antagonist, Claude, instead of fleeing from him and leaving his mother and a kennel full of dogs he loved behind.

In another scene, Edgar's heart surges in his chest. "He tried to force sound from his mouth, but there was only the gasp of exhaled breath. He swung his hand wide, then struck his chest with all the force he could muster, mouthing the words." In his extremity in this scene, the creative and resourceful Edgar from earlier can muster nothing creative or resourceful. It just doesn't make sense.

Other commenters have mentioned the flatline pace throughout the work. The book has no heartbeat because of it. It also fails to satisfy the reader as to several plot lines, leading readers down paths and leaving them lost there. Others have mentioned these specifically.

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