Edie Pritchard is beautiful and self-possessed. She works at a bank, wears her hair short, confronts bullies, isn’t afraid to hitchhike alone or pilot a Volkswagen over a mountain road at night — yet she lives in small-town Montana where every glove compartment holds a pistol and every man thinks he’s an outlaw.
How will that work out for her?
Larry Watson is a riveting storyteller. His latest novel, “The Lives of Edie Pritchard,” chronicles three periods of Edie’s life, each of which could be its own journey. The first part occurs in the late 1960s when Edie is the young bride of a furniture salesman, a man whose skinny frame predicts not only future illness but a stinginess of emotion that will not serve him well in his marriage to Edie (especially when his more effusive twin, Roy, turns on the charm).
When Edie and Roy travel to a neighboring town to purchase a car and are harassed by local thugs, the resulting testosterone-induced multi-feud (town against town; brother against brother; wife against husband) sets an edgy tone for the rest of the story.
In the second section, Edie is divorced and has moved away and is now the mother of a surly teenager. When she learns that her first husband is dying, she packs up her daughter, the family cat, and all their belongings and takes off. What ensues is the harrowing pursuit of a jealous husband and other revelatory events that sharpen Edie into the 64-year-old grandmother she will become by the novel’s third section.
The third part of the story takes place in the late ’00s. Edie is living alone and loving the life when her estranged granddaughter arrives on her doorstep with two fast-talking brothers in tow and no timeline for moving on. Though a gracious host, Grandma Edie warns the men, “I’ve lived enough years in the West to understand something about young men like you. I’ve seen them in bars and on street corners and in their cars and trucks. You love your freedom all right. Free to be some sort of outlaw.”
This section clips along on parallel tracks of tension: Will Edie arrive in time to rescue her granddaughter from these lowlifes? Will Roy finally win Edie over? Are there any good men in Montana?
A distracting number of cigarettes get crushed in the novel, so many in fact that spotting one stubbed, stabbed or ground into asphalt, concrete or gravel would make for a good drinking game. But maybe that’s pandemic-me talking.
All in all, this is a fast and compelling read, sparse and dusty as the open plain. Watson’s journey is a sensory one, taking us down rippling highways and across weedy fields into basement rec rooms and out into shadowy sunsets. Though some scenes are gritty, the novel’s dialogue and imagery awaken our senses and prove once again that when depicting small-town life in the West, Larry Watson is crushing it.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities writer and reviewer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Lives of Edie Pritchard
By: Larry Watson.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 368 pages, $27.95.
Event: Talk of the Stacks, via Zoom, 7 p.m. July 23. Go to www. supporthclib.org/larry-watson