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So Brave, Young and Handsome – Leif Enger

July 24, 2008

I’ve been planning my summer reading for some time now, expecting to have time during recuperation to read more than is usual. So I was delighted to discover that 2 of my favourite writers were publishing new novels in May/June, one of them is Leif Enger. His first novel, six years ago, was Peace Like a River which impacted me profoundly – a beautitful novel of grace and justice, with a stunning conclusion.

So Brave is the difficult second novel and I think Enger is conscious of this in the plot line. The winsome narrator is Monte Becket, a writer in Minnesota in 1915 who was a surprise runaway success with a story he wrote. On a promise for a second, he tries to concoct a story from his imagination but consistently falls short. Given that one of the storylines rejected is very similar to the plot of Peace Like A River, I guess we can assume there is some autobiographical element to So Brave.

The story unfolds in a journey south with a companion with an unknown past named Glendon Hale, pursued by a relentless and brutal former Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo. (Siringo’s brutality and indestructability reminded me of “No Country for Old Men’).

I chime with Enger’s view of the world. The story is a bit of a romp, a tale of derring-do and the type of old fashioned yarn that is perhaps quite rare these days. There’s no real mystery in the ending, you can see it coming from afar, but the book satisfies for all that. There’s a funny conversation on literary criticism between Beckett and a policeman named Royal Davies. Writers do their readers no favours he says, by letting them believe that life is adventure. Becket, and I guess we may say Enger, writes in response:

I take issue with Royal, much as I came to like him; violent and doomed as this world might be, a romance it certainly is.”

One writer in particular is the subject of conversation the imaginary BS Ample, who shuns romanticism in favour of pragmatic realism. Is there a joke in his name?

It’s not that Enger shuns darkness in the novel, both Siringo and young man Hood Roberts display capricious and cold violence. He also allows for the chance tragedies of accident and weather. But through it all grace shines.

Lying in the bed in hospital, where I read this book, the surprising appearances of grace are what caused me to close the book several times and reflect on what I had read. Early in the book, Becket apprentices himself to Hale who is building a boat. Hale works from plans in his head, feeling the lines of the boat emerge beneath his fingers as he planes the wood. Becket remarks on the graceful lines of the boat uncovered by Hale’s loving work. Hale remarks,

They are decent lines..you can see the sheer now, the curve. A line only gets grace when it curves, you know.

With that line I was sold on this book. I guess the curve my life has taken over the last year was unexpected. Previous there had been a reasonably unbroken, straight line in which God had been transparently good to me and my family. My health had never been the line I expected to bend from true. But here I was in hospital. And here was a sentence which gave me hope. The possibility of beauty emerging from the line as it bends under pressure.

But doesn’t break.

Late in the book, Hales asks Becket to baptise him in the river as a form of insurance policy. Becket, who struggles with faith reluctantly agrees and finds himself standing in the middle of the cold river, terrified by the creatures swimming round him and brushing against his legs, confused by the task he must now fulfil, to immerse Hale in the river and say a prayer over him.

The river ran around us. It was an absurd situation for an ambivalent fellow like myself – numb to the eyeballs, dispensing a grace I couldn’t even describe.

Well, the river has run round my family and me in recent months. Its force has bent us all out of shape at times, and moved us in directions and to places we never really expected. But there is grace here to be dispensed. Indeed, there is grace being dispensed. Grace we struggle to describe.

But for which we are grateful.

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From → Books

3 Comments
  1. I’ve been wanting to read this book. I LOVED Peace Like a River which I read several years ago. Now I’m definately picking this one up…I’ll make time to read it.

    Great Review.

  2. G, thanks so much for this post! After reading it I bought Peace… and it made my holiday – well that and the quality time with my wife, sunshine and lovely french food!! I can’t wait to read So Brave…

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