'So Brave, Young and Handsome' by Leif Enger; 'The Other' by David Guterson
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The first sentence of Leif Enger's second novel didn't exactly entice me to read on:
"Not to disappoint you," Monte Becket muses, "but my troubles are nothing -- not for an author, at least."
Using a self-deprecating writer as a main character is a recipe for reader disappointment. In the literary world it's referred to as imitative fallacy when, for example, an unlikable character or banal circumstances result in a dislikable or boring story.
Becket, a mail carrier-turned one-hit-novelist, dries up after quitting his job and dedicating himself to writing 1,000 words a day. The early pages of the novel, then, focus on his struggle toward bad writing, which made me tired.
I should add that Enger's first book, "Peace Like a River," sold more than a million copies, making him a bit of a one-hit wonder himself. "So Brave" is his second novel in 10 years. Comparisons can be drawn from these facts.
There are, as the book proceeds, many stock characters who amble or saunter or mosey into scenes. Glendon Hale is the first. A handy boat builder with a mysteriously checkered past, he befriends Becket's boy, Redstart, and then Becket himself.
Becket is portrayed as living a contented, charming early 1900s domestic existence. His wife, Susannah, is endlessly cheerful and supportive. She paints and makes biscuits as Redstart -- who could be a double for Ron Howard's Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show" -- sustains his endless country-boy curiosity.
Nevertheless, Becket leaves all this pastoral contentment to travel west with Hale to do some cowboying, promising his sweet family that he'll return in six weeks.
Mind you, I'm not at all averse to cowboying. In fact, I have a soft spot for movies such as "High Noon" or "The Searchers." And maybe it's the cowboy movie paradigm that makes writing a good Western book such a challenge.
Enger's book, however, left me wanting some good old honest pacing, some nicely weighted silences, that familiar restrained macho cowboy style, some convincing local dialect and dialogue. It left me yearning for a little "Brokeback Mountain."
To be fair, Enger does offer up some pretty language. He gets quite eloquent when his characters get near rivers. Becket muses:
"You are no failure, on a river. The water moves regardless --for all it cares, you might be a minnow or a tadpole, a turtle on a beavered log. You might be nothing at all."
Becket is drawn to water, as is Hale, and this is where the book makes sense -- when they're building boats or floating on the water.
Maybe Enger should've ignored the cowboying call of the West, and had his characters sail out to sea instead.
"The Other" by David Guterson, Knopf, $24.95
David Guterson, 52, is not a one-hit wonder, although he's yet to achieve the popularity of his first novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars" in 1994.
That's fine. His subsequent novels "East of the Mountains" and "Our Lady of the Forest" -- reflected the quiet and solitary nature of the Northwest, as well as its beauty, in spare, yet moving prose. His plots were simple and characters direct.
Little has changed in "The Other," a buddy novel with echoes of familiar tales of hermits such as the Unibomber and Chris McCandless, whose story of wilderness tragedy was told in the book and film, "Into the Wild."
Because we've heard these stories before, Guterson's hermit, John William Barry, is a well-worn character. The only child of a well-off Boeing designer who ignored him and artsy upper-class mother who abused him emotionally, his reasons for fleeing civilization are clear.
His pal, Neil Countryman, is a working-class guy who shares Barry's teen pursuits of endurance hiking and camping, along with copious tokes of marijuana.
They meet in the 1970s while competing in a high school track meet, Countryman a public schooler and Barry from a posh private institution.
Countryman is attracted by Barry's oddness and careless behavior, but it's clear he's screwed up; crying jags, obsessive behavior and poor "people skills" are the tip-offs.
The pair is soon plunging recklessly into the wilderness -- even without matches -- and Countryman comes face-to-face with the fact that his friend is suicidal.
As he matures into a decent college student, high-school teacher, husband, father and unpublished novelist, Barry sinks deeper into self-imposed isolation in a cave he's hewed in Washington State, with his only friend's occasional help. He also supplies food and books.
Before we learn this history, narrator Countryman tells us at the outset that Barry is dead, leaving him $440 million. He thinks he'll cut back on the teaching now.
Guterson, a fount of wilderness information and great respecter of the natural world, pours them into his novel. But, its conventional structure and story distract from the idyllic setting and evocative prose.
There are no surprises or insightful moments, despite the novelist's small revelation near book's end.
Countryman is a man of small intentions and commonplace life. Even the cash fails to make him dream. He's just too uninteresting to carry the book, and he needs to, because Barry's too one-dimensional.
There's much to admire about "The Other," but unfortunately, it's not the characters.
First Published June 8, 2008 12:00 am