Justice, by Larry Watson

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

It is impossible to discuss Larry Watson’s Justice without making reference to the novel that preceded it, the outstanding Montana 1948, so let’s start with a brief summary of that volume. (If you do click back to my review, you will find one of the most enthusiastic of the hundreds that are now part of the archives of this blog.)

In Montana 1948, 52-year-old David Hayden is looking back 40 years to a series of incidents that took place during the summer of his twelfth year. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of Bentrock in northeast Montana, as was his father before him. David’s Uncle Frank is the town doctor — he’s also a war hero, revered in the community in a way that the prominent Hayden family has come to believe is its due over the generations. David’s family’s maid, a Sioux named Marie, takes sick and Dr. Frank is called in — Marie reacts by going into a panicked withdrawal and refuses to see him. That sets in a motion a process of discovery for Sheriff Wesley that eventually tears apart the bonds that have held the Haydens together.

The seven “chapters” in Justice all involve various Haydens and friends and all take place in Bentrock prior to the 1948 of Watson’s earlier novel — the earliest (1899) tells the story of the arrival of Julian Hayden in the Montana frontier in 1899, the most recent (1937) features the marriage of Sheriff Wesley and the birth of David, who 52 years later will narrate Montana 1948.

Readers who come to Justice with no knowledge of Montana, 1948 are likely to read it as a collection of linked short stories that cumulatively pull together the story of a frontier family. Those who have read that novel probably will see it most conveniently as a prequel that offers some sketches of background to the Haydens and other characters who form the cast of the earlier book.

I am inclined to a somewhat different interpretation, one that I think Watson hints at in his prologue to Montana 1948:

The events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequences seem wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during.

One of the novel’s great strengths is that the author does not waste a single word, let alone scene, in its 169 pages. In his mind, Watson obviously had a wealth of well-developed scenes from the history of the Hayden family — but chose to restrict himself to memories of those that occurred in the summer of 1948. Justice is a collection of scenes from previous years that were important to the author in mentally imagining the family but, in the final analysis, not essential to that story. Referring to them as “rejected scenes” seems unnecessarily harsh; the journalist in me much prefers that old standby of “useful deep background”.

Consider the first chapter of Justice, titled “Outside the Jurisdiction” and set in 1924 — what follows has spoilers for that chapter, but I will leave the other six alone. Wesley and his older brother Frank (in his senior high school year and due to attend the University of Minnesota) are headed to North Dakota (out of the jurisdiction of their sheriff father, hence the title) for their annual winter hunting trip:

The plan had been to leave their home in northeast Montana, cross over into North Dakota, and head south. Eventually they would set up camp on the banks of the Little Missouri and from there hunt the red rocky bluffs, the dark wooded draws, and the sagebrush flats of the Dakota Badlands. They had hunted that region for years, and just last year they returned with four deer and over fifty pheasant and partridge. Lester [a friend who is also along on this year's trip] had even shot a coyote. Of course last year the weather had been much different — three days of sunshine and uncommonly warm temperatures.

Unfortunately, for Wesley, this year’s trip has much less promise, and not just because it is starting out in a major Prairie snowstorm. Frank and the travelling companions, Lester and the no-good Tommy, are three years older than Wesley so he feels very much the child of the group. Tommy has brought along three bottles of bootleg whiskey and, it turns out, a pistol — degenerate “urban” misbehavior rather than healthy badlands hunting seems to be this year’s agenda.

That proves to be the case early on when the four get into trouble as Frank and Tom start flirting with two native girls in the cafe in McCoy where the four stop to get out of the storm. The flirting turns dangerous when Tommy responds to rejection by pulling out his pistol — one of the girls falls (or is tripped by Tom) on her way hustling out of the cafe and splits her lip seriously.

Bad soon turns to much worse when Sheriff Cooke shows up at the McCoy Hotel where the boys have taken a room and started to sample the hootch. He takes them down to the local jail and lets them sit isolated in the cell (there is only one) for a while, before revealing that the father of the girl who fell in the cafe is Iron Hail, a local Sioux hero. The anxiety increases before Cooke and his deputy escort the four out into the snowy alley, clear a patch behind the local liquor store and tell Tommy to drop his drawers:

“All right,” the sheriff said to Tom, as if someone had finally come up with the right answer. “You came to town looking to stick your pecker somewhere, you can stick it in that snowbank.”

[Tommy balks for a few paragraphs, amid threats from the sheriff.]

“Shit!” Tommy said, and more than leap toward the snow, he simply let himself lean and fall forward into it. He kept his arms folded in front of him; the instant his body hit he let out a shout that was half-laugh, half-cry.

Sheriff Cooke commanded, “You get up when I tell you.” and at the same time the deputy with the rifle moved over and pinned Tommy down by putting his foot on his back.

“All right, Clarence,” the sheriff said.

The man with the shovel braced his feet, brought his shovel back like a baseball bat, and swung. The flat back of the shovel’s blade hit Tommy square on the ass, and in the cold air the metal rang like a bell, as if the shovel had met not flesh but iron. Tommy yelped like a dog, as much in surprise as in pain.

Clarence delivered four more blows, and with each one Wesley could see Tommy’s body arch and spasm with the indecision of whether to press further into the snow or to rise up and meet the shovel.

Lester is subjected to a similar treatment — Wesley realizes that the two have just been “spanked”, albeit with their peckers in a snowbank and a metal shovel as the disciplinary tool of choice. When he and Frank are spared the punishment, the truth begins to dawn: they may be “outside the jurisdiction” but they aren’t outside the influence of their father. Sheriff Cooke consulted Sheriff Hayden when he heard of the incident at the cafe — the two came up with the “life-learning” experience of the outdoor spanking.

At 68 pages, that story is close to half the length of Montana 1948 — as good as it is (and it is very good) it would have been more than just another scene in the novel, it would have been a serious, unuseful, distraction. Most of the other chapters in Justice are much shorter but fit that same criteria. All are self-contained “scenes” and quite successful as stories, but they would have added nothing to the novel. That said, it would have been a loss if they were discarded: I for one am very glad that Watson held on to them and produced this separate collection.

That for me was the most interesting aspect of reading Justice: seeing how complete and well-developed an author’s thoughts were in producing a cast of characters, but also illustrating his wisdom in realizing that some just weren’t necessary — indeed would be a barrier — for the success of the novel. That is the kind of discipline that all too few novelists possess.

I love Larry Watson’s writing and very much appreciated this book. But if you haven’t read Montana 1948, head to that novel first; if you have, track down a copy of Justice because it adds another dimension to what is in itself an excellent novel.

14 Responses to “Justice, by Larry Watson”

  1. Sharkell Says:

    I read Montana1948 a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it too. I love the idea of Justice and how it gives some background to the characters in Montana 1948. I hadn’t heard of it before. Another book to add to my wishlist.

  2. Kerry Says:

    I skipped ahead after “spoilers” because I have read Montana 1948, on your recommendation (though its one of the ones in my backlog of reviews and hence does not appear in my archives), and loved it. You had me at Larry Watson, but your enthusiasm for this particular work makes the entreaty all the more sweet.

    Thanks! (My wife is less grateful to you…..heh…)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, if you are committed to geting the book, it was wise to not let me spoil the longest of the seven stories. I still have five Watson novels to go — I intend to spread them out, just as I did John McGahern. I don’t often discover an author with a back catalogue that I know I will like.

      • Kerry Says:

        Though I have only read the one Watson so far, I do plan to complete his back catalog. And I agree that it is a wonderful thing to find an author to whom you know you can return with satisfaction all but guaranteed. I love spare but powerful writing and Watson delivered that in spades with Montana 1948. Your description of this book as, basically, deep background material for the concise but richly imagined Montana 1948. It sounds interesting both from a reading perspective to get additional background on these characters and from a craft perspective to see a bit of Watson at work, imagining details that do not make it into the finished product but, perhaps, influenced it. I truly believe you can tell when a writer has fully imagined their characters and really knows them, versus a writer who has only imagined what is necessary to put in the novel.

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          I agree completely with your point about the “craft perspective” that I found in this volume. I can certainly think of examples where authors have “discovered” characters while creating a novel whom they then go on to explore. Given the relative shortness of these seven stories, I have to think that Watson at least had them in mind (if not put down in writing) when he was writing the novel but chose not to use them there. That is my idea of discipline in craft.

  3. Robert Currie Says:

    R. Currie: Like you I read MONTANA 1948 before I came across JUSTICE. I thought the stories were well-written, especially the one you deal with in some detail. Still, MONTANA 1948 was in a class by itself, a powerful story told in the condensed style of poetry. I’ve read it three times now, and will no doubt go back to it again.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I can’t dispute that Montana 1948 is in a class by itself. On the other hand, I can’t think of another example of a “prequel” consisting of a number of scenes and episodes that enrich the original book the way that this one does. That’s what makes it more than just an interesting curiosity.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: a number of this author’s novels were just offered on the cheap for the kindle, so I bought them.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I am reading him pretty much in chronological order, so I have the later ones to go — reviews that I have read of them have been positive. Thanks for alerting visitors here to the kindle sale.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    Having enjoyed Montana 1948 so much I’m a sucker for this one as well Kevin. Love the idea of fragments, back-story fitting around the main event.

    I agree as well that the discipline Watson seems to have embraced is impressive and rare.

    I had great enjoyment from another collection of linked family stories you recommended – In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

  6. Trevor Says:

    I am excited for a couple of reasons. One: I’ve been worried that, because it was so good, Montana 1948 would be a kind of one-hit-wonder. I’m glad to hear it confirmed that’s just not the case. Two: I have In Other Rooms, Other Wonders on your recommendation and had forgotten about it. Now I need to go find it and enjoy it.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m glad you commented — I neglected to mention in my review that you were the one who put me on to Montana 1948 in the first place. I think you will find this collection well worth your while when you get to it — although, almost by definition, it doesn’t have the substance of the novel.

      And I should note that one of the reasons Other Rooms did not come to mind when I was reading it was that Maile Meloy’s stories did — as did some scenes from John Williams’ novels. That certainly puts Watson in good company.

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