I just turned the last page of Leif Enger’s new book, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. It hit the shelves a couple of months ago and, yes, I’m a slow reader—correction—deliberate reader, because some books are too good to ever want to finish. I want them to keep going and going because I love the sounds of the words and the flow of the chapters and the nearness of the characters. I don’t want endings to those books. I want them to come along with me, and keep on like an old friend because I know I’ll mourn the passage once we part. This is such a book.
It’s set in the early days of the twentieth century as the Old West is fading into industry. Automobiles are noisily replacing horses, the flicker of the cinema is beginning to outshine the travelling Wild West shows, and the outlaws and law men of the old century are grown old, worn quiet and wise, and gone in search of absolution. Within this world Enger places his reader in the matter-of-fact company of Monte Becket, a husband, father, and writer, as he accompanies Glendon Dobie, an old train robber, on one last journey west to deliver an apology. Behind them, like a bloodhound, comes lawman Charlie Siringo, sniffing out their trail as it wends its way amongst a cast of characters scattered across the American west. Glendon, the gentle old trainrobber, wants only to make amends and pay his moral debts, while his foil, Siringo, is a man so bent on bringing him to justice for the crimes of decades past that he’s become the antithesis of grace itself.
The story unfolds in brief chapters, rarely more than a page or two, that provide tautly written vignettes of the characters as they make their way west. I’m always skeptical of stories that use a writer with writer’s block as a device, it’s been done too many times, but here it works, partly because it’s not the primary conflict of the book, and partly because Enger’s conversational narrator, Monte Becket, is a joy to listen to. I’m glad to have had the experience of watching him come into his own grace.
I don’t want to spoil the book but those looking for explicit Christian themes and a big emotional finale, as in Peace Like a River, might be disappointed. Those things are still here but they’re buried deeper, nestled down into the corners of the narrative like a prospector’s lode. It’s a story about grace and forgiveness and patience, how they change us, and how their lack corrupts us.
A big recommendation on this one. Leif Enger 2-0.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.
This is a wonderful review! I finished the book not too long ago and I completely agree. And, I love your description of deliberate reading – I’m a deliberate reader myself.
I bought this one awhile back and am saving it for my vacation in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the recommendation, it makes me look forward to it even more.
Despite the awful title, I was pleasantly surprised by the book. (Anyone figure out where the title came from, by the way?) You could tell that Enger put a lot of effort into it, and it shows, particularly in his style. The prose is taut and well-constructed, where Peace Like a River was loose and expansive. Thumbs up.
I appreciate your insight on this. I finished it a week or so ago and had mixed feelings about it — on the one hand, it is beautifully written, but it also seemed a little too muted. I had a hard time connecting with Monte Becket. I think some of it is that I loved Peace Like a River so much that I may be viewing the new novel too much through that lens. I’ll probably read it again in the future because there are layers that I don’t think I absorbed very well. It’s a good book and nobody should take my wafflings as a reason not to read it.
I agree with this book. I received it as a gift in April and didn’t start it until summer break as a little reward. It didn’t connect with me as much emotionally as Peace Like A River, but I still very much enjoyed it. I think I had a hard time connecting with Monte, but probably because I kept comparing him to Reuben from PLAR. Still, it was very good and I have reccomended to quite a few people.
Loren – the title comes from an old country song. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that was the thought behind the title. Maybe a homage to those types of songs in the past? I’m interested in what other people have to say.
You’re absolutely right — “Streets of Laredo.” It makes perfect sense in context:
We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly
And bitterly wept as we carried him along.
For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young and handsome.
We all loved our comrade although he done wrong.
Now I feel really dumb missing the allusion.
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