Saturday, May 17, 2008

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

From the Charlotte Observer, my review of Leif Enger's novel:

A vigorous way to break writer's block

In ‘So Brave,' a forlorn writer finds adventure and inspiration out West

By Mindy Friddle

Special to the Observer

Robin Enger photo

Leif Enger, author of "So Brave, Young, and Handsome."


By Leif Enger. Atlantic Monthly Press. 272 pages. $24.

“Authorship is not a trade,” Mark Twain once wrote. “It is an inspiration; its habitation is all out under the sky, and everywhere the winds are blowing and the sun is shining and the creatures of God are free.”

The American satirist might well have been describing the dilemma faced by Monte Becket, the narrator and failed writer in “So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” the second novel by Leif Enger. Becket is desperately casting about for an adventure to write about, and it isn't long until he finds one. Like his 2001 debut novel, “Peace Like a River,” Enger's follow-up begins in a small town in Minnesota before his characters soon hit the road.

When we first encounter Becket in 1915, he is determined to make a living pounding out tales of adventure. Alas, he tells us, his daily word count is anemic. (“Jack London sets down a thousand a day before breakfast,” he says, “How hard can it be?”)

By the time we meet him in “flat old Minnesota,” Becket is blocked and bereft, “sitting on the porch of my comfortable farmhouse, composing the flaccid middle of my seventh novel in five years.” Unfinished novels, that is.

Enter Glendon Hale, a mysterious boat maker in the twilight of his years, who lives down the river from Becket. Hale befriends Becket's son, charms his wife and persuades Becket to accompany him down Mexico way to find the wife Hale abandoned 20 years previously. The two men set off, but the sojourn turns rocky when Hale's train-robbing past comes to light, and he and Becket find themselves pursued by Charles Siringo, an odious bounty hunter whose eerie talent for finding fugitives is matched only by Hale's uncanny ability to slip through the fingers of the law.

Becket's languid days of porch-writing may be behind him; fortunately for us, he proves to be an appealing narrator in this picaresque tale of the American West.

Still, there's nothing like a villain to quicken a reader's pulse, and it is Siringo, his face “pale as smoke,” who breathes life into the pages of this story like a rattled-breath Darth Vader cowboy.

“I did glimpse the dark creature squatting behind the flatness of his eyes,” Becket says, while finding himself held captive by the ancient lawman who, upon awakening, “spat the wicked day to life.” Over a campfire, Siringo, a memoirist of some note, impresses Becket by effortlessly reciting the first chapter of his traumatic life story, advising Becket that in adventure writing, it is best to “just lay down events without floral arrangement.”

In the end, Becket will have his own harrowing experiences to mine, but thankfully, won't leave off his tender “floral arrangements” in the telling. And while there are dark events in this novel – broken necks, murdered trackers, flood and fire – the comic moments are never far behind.

“So Brave, Young, and Handsome” is an enthralling romp, appealing to fans of “Peace Like a River” – to anyone, that is, who loves a good story.

Mindy Friddle is author of the novels “The Garden Angel” (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and “Secret Keepers,” forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.

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