Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Read -- I Thnk

Some of the most pleasant memories I have and will ever have are of browsing in bookstores. I don’t mind the the big chains, I understand why they exist and why the small independent stores, most of them, are fewer and number and don’t live long when they pop up hopefully in artsy neighborhoods. So I cherish those small ones all the more when I find one.

On our family vacation in Estes Park a couple of years ago I happened on the Macdonald Book Shop on Elkhorn, the village’s main drag. I bought Jayne Anne Phillips’s most recent novel (which I really must get to sometime) and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. I don’t often ask for recommendations, but I wanted to spend more money there and didn’t see how I could go wrong.

At this point, my dreamy recollection from the musty stacks takes a left turn, because one of the books she recommended was one of the very worst books I have ever read, and I warned you about it here. So I was not particularly looking forward to reading the other one she recommended, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger.

Yet I found myself quickly charmed. Turning the pages to find out what happened next took very little effort. This struck me almost from the outset as a very old fashioned novel in the former sense of the word – a novelty, an unusual tale, something that transports us into a new (that is, novel) world. I won’t be giving anything away to tell you that the novel is narrated by Monte Becket, a man living in Minnesota with his lovely wife and lively adolescent son in the mid-1920s. He wrote one successful novel and found himself unable to finish another one. He encounters an enigmatic stranger, Glendon Hale, who, after initial reticence, becomes friends with the family. Hale, who has skill as a boatmaker, plans to set off to find his first wife he calls Blue, a Mexican woman he left many years earlier, to apologize to her. Becket decides to join him, and the book is about their journey and what happens to them along the way. There are two other major characters, a young buck who is magic with horses and engines – the automobile is still in its preadolescence – and the real-life character Charlie Siringo, a former Pinkerton detective. About the plot I will say no more.

I read this book quickly to its conclusion (285 pages) and when I was done, I thought my, what a fine book. And then I thought: but what was the point? Was there a catharsis? Did the characters change? What explains its unexpected conclusion, and how does it illuminate the darker corners of the human condition? Was it intended to do so, or was I just tricked into reading something that was just a plot, a coupla guys who started out here, to whom stuff happened as they moved along, and ended up there, the end?

No, I don’t think I was duped. I felt enriched, as I do when I feel like I’ve ingested something of value and I think I will remember this book. But I will tell you that it perplexed me, and it perplexes me as I write these lines. This is one of those books that has a study guide in the back with a bunch of questions designed to guide the discussions of book clubs. I looked through them and as I did, I thought yeah, I should have noticed that.

Which makes me think that this is one of those books with hidden riches that are so skillfully hidden that I – who must read quickly and perhaps less reflectively than I should properly to honor the author’s art – would not experience them unless I worked at it. That’s not a criticism. I felt the book’s value as I read it, but I knew just as certainly that I wasn’t going to be able to articulate its lessons. But I feel that those lessons are there.

Perhaps you can experience them. But even if you don’t, it’s a fine read, and I commend it to you.


  1. I have read Peace Like a River, his other popular work. And I really liked it. But I felt the exact same way as you did with this one!! I didn't take away anything life changing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.