North Dakota native Larry Watson ("Montana 1948," "Justice") is a man of the Upper Midwest, and he revisits that territory in his latest novel to tell the story of one young man's shattered illusions.
Though "American Boy" is set in the early 1960s, life in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Willow Falls, "the land flat or gently undulating, sparsely populated, and mostly plowed for farming," vividly evokes a simpler time, reminiscent of Tony Earley's novels "Jim the Boy" and "The Blue Star."
There are hockey games on back-yard rinks, drag racing on the town's main street and an esteemed doctor who practices out of an office in his imposing Victorian house.
Raised by a widow who works as a waitress, 17-year-old Matthew Garth, the novel's narrator, is the unofficial adopted son of Dr. Rex Dunbar and his family. He's so enamored of the older man that he's determined to follow him into a career in medicine. But life changes when Louisa Lindahl, a mysterious woman in her early 20s who's been shot by her abusive lover, is nursed back to health by the doctor and then moves into the Dunbar home.
Almost from the moment of Louisa's arrival the tension escalates, as Matthew and Johnny (the eldest Dunbar child and Matthew's best friend) vie for her attention. Celebrating New Year's Eve with Louisa in the Dunbars' attic or sneaking off to the local golf course for a night of drinking in the shuttered clubhouse, the boys' biggest concern -- as for most teenagers -- is how to turn their sexual fantasies into reality. What they don't realize is that she has her eye on a bigger prize, and as that understanding registers with Matthew he must confront inescapable, painful facts that challenge everything he's come to believe is true.
The decision to tell this story in Matthew's voice turns out to be this novel's most serious flaw. His earnest, un-ironic narration almost mirrors the flatness of the town's landscape and for all the immediacy of his perception and the intensity of his reactions to the compromises and betrayals of adult life, there's an inevitable lack of maturity in his limited point of view. That he's a sympathetic character helps sustain the novel's appeal, but a more vivid narrative voice could have made it much richer.
"The power of human desire is matched only by our inability to express those desires," Matthew realizes when he's come face-to-face with the sad truths that will propel him into adulthood, "thus guaranteeing that neither comedy nor tragedy is ever in short supply." While its ambition feels limited, "American Boy" is still an engaging coming-of-age story from an author whose body of work contains more substantial material.
- Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer in Pennsylvania.