Monday, April 28, 2008

Finding Another Great Author: Leif Enger – “So Brave, Young and Handsome”

I love to discover wonderful new places to eat, exotic vacation spots to explore and interesting authors to read. Leif Enger has followed-up his best-selling debut novel, “Peace Like a River” with a gritty tale that took me back to the sparse romanticism of some of the classic Hollywood Westerns. When I am so caught up in the narrative of a book that I miss my stop on the subway, then I know the author as reached out and grabbed me in his vice-like grip. Enger did that to me as I plowed through the pages of “So Brave, Young and Handsome.”

The plot revolves around the travels of two unlikely companions who set out from Minnesota to find the wife that one of the travelers had abandoned twenty years before. Monte Becket, a failed novelist, is enticed to set out on a quixotic trek with Glendon Hale, an enigmatic hermit of a figure with a sketchy past. As the two make their way west and south, they encounter a stunning array of landscapes – some topographical, some relational and others deeply personal.

Each memorable character that they encounter along the way functions in some manner as a mirror to help Monte and Glendon to see themselves as they truly are or truly could be. It is a complex and beautifully told tale.

Enger has a unique voice, the rhythm and disarmingly elegant simplicity of which drew me in from the first paragraph. His phrases are as brittle as a hard tack biscuit and full of folk wisdom. In his style, Enger displays elements of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Zane Grey. I offer several extended samples to give you a feel for the notes that he strikes:

“That is how I came to be [ex-Pinkerton detective] Siringo’s keeper – I would say his nurse, only I served him little except as company. I suppose I felt partially responsible for his condition, though his pursuit of Glendon was his own choice. For two full days he was on precarious ground – he would wake and carry on, lucid a small percentage of the time. When he roared his gibberish the boardinghouse residents cowered in the hallways, but then for minutes together he might speak with urgent exactitude as though narrating a preposterous memoir. He revealed many pieces of his life, including an account of his first meeting with Darlys DeFoe that made me blush to the eyeballs. He told how he left off cowboying when the profession of detective was chosen for him at a public demonstration of phrenology. The phrenologist’s fingers strolled over his scalp like ten stubby prophets and he uttered the word ‘detective’ in a divine whisper, after which Siringo considered no other course. He talked about being dynamited out of his Chicago house by anarchists, landing literally in the street while pine shards and hot plumbing rained around him.” (Page 148)

As Becket prepares to be reunited with his wife, who is traveling from Minnesota to California by train to meet him, he and Glendon share their thoughts with one another:

“’What’s scratching at you, Becket?’ Glendon finally asked. ‘Your wife and boy are coming before long. This place is pretty and snug; there’s the river just paces away. You ought to be merry, that’s what you think.’

‘I’m nervous about seeing Susannah,’ I admitted.

‘Now, what kind of sense does that makes?’ he inquired. I guess it made none to Glendon, who in the name of atonement had braved an absence of decades. Compared with that, what cause had I to worry?

And yet I did. Recently it often seemed as if Susannah were looking at the moon while I looked somewhere else – say, at a lake. If I saw the moon in the lake I believed we were looking in the same place, but let anything disturb the water and we were two people standing alone. We needed to look at something the same way, as we once had, or as it seemed to me we once had. I didn’t know how to do it.

‘You will know what to say when you see her,’ Arandano told me, while I fretted on the porch the next evening.

‘No, that is not what will happen,’ said her husband. ‘No, Monte. You will be mute when you see her. Entirely lost for words! Speechless is what you will be.’

‘Contrary man,’ said Arandano.

‘I am never contrary. No. Because this silence itself will speak to her on his behalf. Words pile up like a wall, but quiet will win back her heart for him – can you see it, Becket?’” (Page 254)

That kind of writing and insight will cause me to go scrambling to lay hold of Enger’s first novel and read that, as well.

Although totally different in terms of the particulars of time, place and action, this novel shares with “The Kite Runner” the theme of traveling a great distance to seek atonement for a wrong committed many years before in another place.

This is a writer whose voice and heart and pen are worth paying close attention to.



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