BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Leif Enger
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008
Best ebook deal: BooksOnBoard
Filed under: Literary
Were I to lead off this review in the foreshadowing style Leif Enger overuses in So Brave, Young, and Handsome, I would write: “How could Enger have known that by the end of his novel, I would have decided that the constant narrative playfulness took away from my enjoyment of what could’ve been a very good book?”
Tacky, perhaps, but I couldn’t resist. And neither could Enger, a storyteller who has written a novel about a storyteller. It’s not a practice I’m drawn to, but in So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Enger almost manages to pull it off. In the end, though, his reliance on gimmicks, portents, and even horror film technique subvert his intentions, and I was left mildly disappointed. It’s a complimentary disappointment, however—if Enger weren’t such a fine writer, I would’ve been able to dismiss this as a simple entertainment.
It is 1915 Minnesota, and Monte Becket is seven years removed from the surprising success of his first novel, Martin Bligh. The book was about the adventures of a Pony Express rider, a man who shares Monte’s initials but, unlike Monte, is not confined by the four walls of the Northfield, MN, post office. After Martin Bligh goes into translation overseas, Monte quits his job at the post office and begins work on his second book, another adventure novel, this time about a cowboy. Monte sets down 1,000 words daily, but quality cannot keep up with quantity, and after six false starts he finds himself in the throes of a problem—how can Monte write a Western when he himself has never been on the open range?
I picked up my pen and wrote: As Dan Roscoe branded each bawling calf with the Moon Ranch insignia, he recalled how Belle had clung to the arm of his hated rival—a moribund sentence that announced the death of my seventh novel.
Enter Glendon Hale, a wizened boatmaker, alcoholic, and wife-abandoner. Monte’s son, Redstart (yes, Redstart), is wowed by Glendon, but Monte tells us, in the first of many, many foreshadowing passages, “How could I know he was indeed to take flight, and very soon, and that it would be I, and not Redstart, who went with him?”
Glendon, a Don Quixote stand-in, sets off for Mexico to make amends to the wife he disappeared on decades earlier, and Monte, of course, tags along for the ride—otherwise there’d be no story.
How could Monte have known that along the way he would witness murder, kidnap and arson, outlaw justice and lawful injustice? That he would rub elbows with thieves and killers, sharpshooters and vigilantes? That he would learn surprising truths about Glendon, but never the whole truth?
You get the point. Monte finally has an audience after five long years, and he revels in leading us around by the ear, always making sure we remember that he knows what comes next in the story—even though it’s always plenty clear to the reader anyway. Passages like the following two get tiring after a while:
Neither his face nor his judgment were fully formed, an apprehension that would keep me soft toward him in the coming days, when so many others were howling for his life.
Arandano’s forgiving of Glendon Hale took some months, and might never have happened if Charles Siringo, ancient and infirm, had not come into our lives one final time.
Enger doesn’t end every chapter with a Hardy Boys-like cliffhanger, but he does it more than enough to make it noticeable. Some readers like the practice. I do not.
(Speaking of the chapters, most of them are only three or four pages long, which makes this book a fairly quick read.)
There are other times when Enger gets too playful. During a conversation with a woman about a rival writer, Monte tells us: “In his most recent novel he had sallied out with a number of momentous ideas, namely that war is difficult, and that poverty is difficult, too; in fact, that much of human experience is marked by difficulty. I don’t remember who is at fault.” The rival writer’s name? Boyd Singleton Ample—from then on referred to simply as “B.S. Ample.”
If you can get past the gimmicks, though, Enger is a writer with talent to spare. He captures with grace the death throes of the Wild West (especially enjoyable are the scenes set at the Hundred and One Ranch in Oklahoma), and takes us over the Great Plains, down through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and on into the orange groves of California. Monte is a floundering, passive follower, but he’s easy to relate to, Glendon is an elusive but likeable character who only wants a little redemption, and Charles Siringo, a legendary ex-Pinkerton detective, is a terrifying monster of a man (something that Enger overuses a bit, as Siringo rises again and again from near death like a killer at the end of a horror film.)
The novel is filled with fetching little scenes of death and life. Watching a man (I won’t spoil it by naming him) die in his arms, Monte tells us, “[His] eyes were open but I don’t know what he saw. Me, fading? The next world? Whatever it was his tongue refused to report. He did not seem to struggle against death, nor did he appear surprised. Death arrived easy as the train; [he] just climbed aboard, like the capable traveler he was.”
Later, Monte eavesdrops on Glendon’s ex-wife sharing a bedroom moment with her husband:
There was a pause, a flipping of pages; Claudio resumed reading but in a softer tone. This was neither farce nor English but Spanish and sinuous. It swirled and drove. Here was poetry of different intent. It made me wish I knew the language and also made me realize how humid the night had suddenly become. Warm and lonely I slipped away. When I told Susannah about it later she didn’t reproach me for rubbernecking but only replied, “Those people know how to live.”
Despite a few problems, this one is worth reading. Doesn’t hurt that it only takes a couple of days. If you’re interested in the “Vanishing West,” this one’s for you. If you want a story of redemption and don’t mind a rather predictable ending, this one’s for you. If you read strictly for literary merit, if you don’t like writers who write about writers, or if foreshadowing and narrative playfulness ruin your enjoyment of a good tale, find another book.
I will definitely keep an eye out for Enger’s next novel. Here’s to hoping that when it does come out, I won’t be spoon-fed the ending before I get there.