Leif Enger’s first novel, Peace Like a River, puzzled me. I couldn’t decide what it was – a western, a contemporary version of Huckleberry Finn, or an exploration of good and evil and how sometimes “good people do evil things,” Or maybe all of these things and something else, too, something out there just beyond my grasp.
I wish I had read Enger’s second novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, first. I understood the first one better after reading the second, and I liked the second one better, in fact, which surprised me for some reason. The first novel even has a cameo role in the second novel, and that was my tip-off.
Both are novels about the nature of story and storytelling. They’re all of those other things, too, but they are essentially about story and storytelling.
Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, I took a course called “The Nature of Story” for a masters program. We read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which most of the class found rather odd if not bizarre but which for me seemed like growing up in New Orleans. We read Twain’s Roughing It, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and a lot of works that are, consciously or unconsciously, about story and storytelling. Enger’s two novels, although published considerably later, would have fit perfectly into the syllabus.
So Brave, Young and Handsome is a story told by Monte Beckham, who’s had a spectacular success with his first novel, a western, but fails to write anything that might work as a second novel. Glendon Hale comes rowing down the river by Monte’s house, and life will change forever for Monte and his family. Monte accompanies Glendon on a trip to Mexico to find Blue, Glendon’s first and possibly only love. Early into the trip, Monte learns that Glendon is an outlaw, and the authorities are still looking for him. It’s 1915, far enough away from the Wild West but still close enough for outlaws to be hanging around.
So Enger takes us on a road trip, and gives us a western, a novel about the odd interchange of good and evil (and heroes and villains), a love story, a history lesson or two, and considerable, if subtle, discussion about stories. Because that’s what the characters are actually talking about. Stories.
While So Brave, Young and Handsome is not a sequel, seeing Enger’s first novel through the prism of his second helps explain both.
And the man is a storyteller.