In 1915 Minnesota, a writer who has lost his edge hooks up with an alluring outlaw - and the two head west for some mettle-testing adventures.
It's conceivable that there is a book lover who may not have read Leif Enger's debut novel "Peace Like a River" in 2001 (this reviewer among them). What isn't conceivable is that anyone could have missed the hoopla surrounding its surprising massive success. It was "The Little Book That Could," embraced by critics and readers alike, becoming a huge bestseller.
Enger has taken the old saying "Write what you know" to heart with his new novel, "So Brave, Young, and Handsome," and the result is a superbly written, utterly compelling story of self-discovery and redemption disguised as a cracking good adventure tale.
Allowing art to imitate life, Enger gives us protagonist Monte Becket, a novelist whose first book was a surprise runaway hit. But that was several years ago and Monte has not had anything published since. Living quietly along the Cannon River in Northfield, Minn., in 1915 with his wife and son, he meets Glendon Hale, an intriguing, and, it turns out, soulful outlaw: "He was Peter Pan before my eyes -- shifting, magnetic, a neat invitation to the curious and the lost and the needy."
Before he knows it, Monte is heading Out West with the fugitive on a quest that quickly becomes a headlong charge into peril.
Enger seems to have created a new genre: call it "romantic realism." What could have been a highly improbable and silly plot never feels clichéd or inauthentic, despite the presence of dogged ex-Pinkerton men; sharp-shooting female Wild West show stars; wise, steadfast wives; beautiful young Mexican maidens, and dashing and doomed young men out to make a mark in the world.
In fact, we thrill to the escapades of these highly romantic characters because Enger makes them fully fleshed human beings. The plot's twists and turns are not only involving but plausible, and it is greatly to the author's credit that he manages to skillfully portray the world both as it is and as we wish it could be; the combination of hard-edged realism and lyrical high adventure is seamless and enthralling. With a pitch-perfect ear, Enger captures the style and essence of the era; there is a comfortable formality to the language and vocabulary that feels just right. The book reads almost like a popular dime novel of the time, albeit much better written, replete with heroes fleeing in the rain with the girl they love and travelers boarding trains in the desolate hours.
The writing is clean and concise, with smartly conceived and beautifully expressed ideas throughout.
Describing his inability to write, Becket says: "I was the Dickensian half-wit who composes letters by the hour, only to make them into kites and fly them up to God." Charles Siringo, an ancient, tough ex-lawman, lies wounded against his horse's neck "... like wet bedding. There was some debate among the boardinghouse audience whether he was alive or dead on that horse, but I hadn't any doubt of his living. Laugh all you like at the old perception of the fated existence; Siringo wore it like his own skin. You can't kill history. You can't shoot it with a bullet and watch it recede into whatever lies outside of memory. History is tougher than that -- if it's going to die, it has to die on its own." Another man's death is described thusly: "He did not seem to struggle against death, nor did he seem surprised. Death arrived easy as the train; he just climbed aboard, like the capable traveler he was."
While "So Brave, Young, and Handsome" will invite comparisons to Cormac McCarthy's "All The Pretty Horses" and Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," Enger's novel easily holds its own with those two. Wisely avoiding the former's bleakness and the latter's epic scope, Enger has created a work of great humanity and huge heart, a riveting piece of fiction that while highly accessible is never shallow. This story of an ordinary man's discovery of who he is and his place in the world is exciting, admirable and ultimately very affecting.
After reading the final page, don't be surprised if you find yourself shaking your head and murmuring, "Wow. What a good book." You undoubtedly won't be the only one.
Peter Moore is a local actor and director. His production of "Mom's The Word" is running at the Actors Theatre of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul.