As Bill Sidey ventures to his reclusive father to ask a favor — he needs someone to watch the kids while his wife travels across Montana for a hysterectomy — he's sure it's a dodgy proposition. The elder Sidey's reputation is as rutty and suspect as the two-track it takes to reach him. But just how risky the request is, not even the hardened son could know. The two men have been estranged for years, and their sudden reunion sets each of them on a course of discovery.
As the elder Calvin Sidey watches his son drive away, he wonders, "Hadn't he banished long ago any feelings of obligation to others? Did he say yes simply because of blood? Could he have said no to anyone but his son? Or is his solitary life less endurable than he believes?" These are the questions at the heart of Watson's 10th book.
With "As Good as Gone," Watson finds himself again in small-town Montana, and, like his last novel, the magnificent "Let Him Go," this one centers mainly on the legacy of the family line. Specifically Calvin Sidey, and his role in the lives of his grandchildren.
Calvin Sidey's own legacy in Gladstone is mysterious at best. He's best known for his exotic French wife whose untimely death sent him reeling before he finally abandoned his own children. It's also been rumored for years that he once killed a man who slighted his beloved wife. Whether this last is true is never revealed, but its mere possibility establishes his character as one capable of anything. And certainly Calvin lives up to his reputation.
Whether Watson is describing the inside of a 1952 Ford Tudor, a homey tree-lined street in Missoula, an afternoon branding a herd of cattle, or a pair of elderly strangers making love as spontaneously as a prairie thunderstorm dropping from the big sky, he writes evocatively and with great persuasion. But don't think this is only a novel of pretty descriptions. There is tension and menace on almost every page, and Calvin finds himself in the middle of most of it. He rushes through town settling scores — his granddaughter's jilted boyfriend, his son's derelict tenant, a neighbor's ill-tempered dog.
And though each of these story lines carries considerable weight and intrigue, the most memorable part of this novel is the wonderful/strange coming together of Calvin and Beverly, a neighbor woman who tries desperately to soften Calvin as she rediscovers something lost in her for nigh unto 30 years. Between the two of them, there seems a rush to capture all the life that's been missed during the past three decades.
This book is vintage Watson: laconic, dramatic and tough as a dry Montana stream bed.
Peter Geye is the author of three novels, including "Wintering," which was published this month. He lives in Minneapolis.