Archive for January, 2014

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

January 30, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

Holt, Colorado is a fictional small town on the High Plains east of Denver. Like most towns of the kind in both the U.S. and Canada, it is bisected by a railway line with grain elevators and stock-loading facilities on the side. The tracks are paralleled by Railroad Street, itself crossed by Main Street. Here is the first description that Kent Haruf provides of the town — Ike and Bobby Guthrie (aged nine and ten) are on the way to the train station in the early morning to pick up their bundle of the Denver News for delivery to residents:

They rode along the gravel road and passed the old vacated light plant, its high windows boarded over, and turned onto the pavement at Main Street and then bounced over the railroad tracks onto the cobblestone platform at the depot. It was a single-story redbrick building with a green tile roof. Inside was a dim waiting room smelling of dust and being closed up, and three or four highbacked pewlike wood benches set in rows facing the train tracks and a ticket office with a single window set behind black grillwork. An old green milk wagon on iron wheels stood outside on the cobblestones beside the wall. The wagon was never used anymore. But Ralph Black, the depot agent, admired the way it looked on the platform and he left it there. The passenger trains only stopped in Holt for five minutes, coming and going, long enough to allow the two or three passengers to board or get off and for the man in the baggage car to drop the Denver News onto the platform beside the tracks.

Plainsong, published in 1999, is the first Haruf novel that I have read, but I was aware before picking it up (thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters and David who is a welcome regular commenter here) that Holt, Colorado is the author’s created, chosen venue for his fiction. This novel introduces what may or may not be a trilogy (Eventide and Benediction are the other two, their titles suggesting at least some connection) and my understanding is that Haruf has located his other novels there as well.

In making that choice, Haruf uses a device that is also employed by a number of KfC favorites. Canada’s W.O. Mitchell locates both Who Has Seen The Wind and Jake and the Kid in a Canadian version of the prairie town (sorry, both read well before the blog began but I promise to reread them eventually). Sherwood Anderson set his outstanding story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, in another version, albeit one located well east of Colorado. And three of Larry Watson’s novels reviewed here (Montana 1948, Justice, and White Crosses) take place in his fictional town of Bentrock, Montana.

These villages have much in common. While there is certainly a bigger world outside them (a brief part of Plainsong actually takes place in Denver), life in the town is pretty much self-contained. Nothing earth-shattering, in the conventional sense of the word, happens in these communities — but they all have their own versions of crises that are every bit as troublesome to the locals. And it is the opportunity to explore the impact of these apparently minor events in detail that leads these talented authors to create their villages.

Ike and Bobby’s father, Tom Guthrie, is the first adult character we meet in the novel. He is a teacher at the local high school, a proud and devoted father, and his immediate crisis is the withdrawal of his wife from day-to-day life. Haruf introduces this in the early pages — I apologize for the length of this excerpt but it is an excellent illustration of both the tone and detail that the author uses to bring life to the community and individuals who feature in this work:

He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of a closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn’t say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

The Guthrie family’s life is one of three storylines in the novel, so allow me to share Haruf’s introduction of the other two — they will overlap eventually, as all small town lives do. One is the story of the challenges faced by highschooler Victoria Roubideaux:

Even before she was awake she felt it rising in her chest and throat. Then she rose rapidly from bed in the white underpants and outsized tee-shirt she wore at night and rushed into the bathroom where she crouched on the tile floor, holding her streaming hair away from her face and mouth with one hand and gripping the rim of the bowl with the other while she retched and gagged. Her body was wracked by spasms. Afterward a spit-string swung from her lip, stretched, elongated, then broke off. She felt weak and empty. Her throat burned, her chest hurt. Her brown face was unnaturally pale now, sallow and hollow beneath her cheekbones. Her dark eyes looked larger and darker than ordinary, and on her forehead was a fine film of clammy sweat. She stayed kneeling, waiting for the gagging and paroxysms to pass.

Okay, the tale of a pregnant teenager in a small town runs the risk of being a cliché — trust me when I say that Haruf makes Victoria a fully-developed, interesting character as the novel progresses.

And finally, we have the McPherons, two cattle ranchers on a spread just outside of Holt (whom the author doesn’t introduce until almost a quarter of the way through the novel, but you will find there’s a reason for that):

They had the cattle in the corral already, the mother cows and the two-year-old heifers waiting in the bright cold late-fall afternoon. The cows were moiling and bawling and the dust rose in the cold air and hung above the corrals and chutes like brown clouds of gnats swimming in schools above the cold ground. The two old McPheron brothers stood at the far end of the corral surveying the cattle. They wore jeans and boots and canvas chore jackets and caps with flannel earflaps. At the tip of Harold’s nose a watery drip quivered, then dropped off, while Raymond’s eyes were bleary and red from the cow dust and the cold. They were almost ready now. They were waiting only for Tom Guthrie to come and help, so they could finish this work for the fall. They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

“This work” in that scene is determining which of the heifers are carrying a calf, vaccinating and dehorning them. You don’t have to be a rancher to know that it is an annual, routine task.

Novels like Plainsong (and those of Mitchell, Anderson and Watson) succeed only if the author can make the normal and routine — and most importantly the people who live that normal routine — involved and interesting, so that the reader can understand how disruptive the “crises” that occur really are to these individuals.

Haruf does that superbly, for this reader at least. The cast of characters and the community developed a rhythm and completeness of story that had me fully enrolled. While I have never visited a rural Colorado town, I have spent a fair bit of time in Alberta ones — by the close of Plainsong, I felt that Holt was a place I had been to more than once.

A final note on the ambiguity of the title. From my sketch of the story, you can see that it strives to be a song of life on the plains, routine as that might be. The epigraph to the book cites the dictionary definition: “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air”.

A “simple and unadorned melody or air” — that’s as powerful an assessment of the novel as I could imagine. I have both Eventide and Benediction on hand and look forward with much anticipation to my next visit to Haruf’s Holt — like Watson’s Bentrock, I already know that it is quite a special place.


The Burial, by Courtney Collins

January 24, 2014

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Australian author Courtney Collins just about lost me in the opening 14 pages of her debut novel, The Burial.

It starts with a three-page prologue featuring Houdini, handcuffed and wrapped in chains in the Yarra River in Melbourne in 1910. As he breaks his bonds underwater, he finds a leg iron wrapped around a limb — not his. When he finally reaches the surface, there is no sign of the bloated body and “he cannot think of how to explain it or who to tell.” Okay, we have our story-setting metaphor (and, I’ll confess, one that landed as a somewhat hackneyed one): an escape tale that will feature more than one buried/submerged body.

And sure enough in the short three opening chapters, the narration comes from a buried body, a newly-born child:

Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was week from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and spindly bed.

When the sun inched awkwardly up she lowered me into the grave. Then, lying prone on the earth, she stroked my head and sang to me. I had never, in my short life, heard her sing. She sang to me until the song got caught in her throat. Even as she bawled and spluttered, her open hand covered my body like the warmest blanket.

Precocious child narrators rank very high on my list of least favorite literary devices. The prospect of a one-day old one, buried in a shallow grave, immediately raised visions of a version of The Lovely Bones, told from below ground rather than from the heavens above. I was quite prepared to abandon the novel immediately, but a twinge of guilt said I had to give Collins at least a few more pages.

And I was quickly glad that I did. We meet the mother (and her horse, Houdini — that metaphor cannot be escaped) as she rides into the boundary of “Fitz’s clearing”, where “pulling out Fitz’s boots, she drained them of water then walked towards the upper gate barefoot”:

There was still smoke rising from the house. Only part of it had tumbled, only part of the roof collapsed. Half looked like it was sliding into a hole while the other half was perfectly intact.

She slid her feet into Fitz’s boots, which were heavy — and even heavier wet. The leather against her toe was cracked, a monument to Fitz, to his kicking. Her skin was smarting within them and her bruised hip pained her as she walked. She was thinking that a bruise should not outlast a man. A boot may last, but the bruises he made should vanish with him.

Please be dead, she said. And it was not the first time she had said it.

Fitz is, in fact, dead in the cellar (“the smell of vinegar and onions, just as he had always smelt”): “She could breathe”. And with that Collins supplies a summary of the narrative that will occupy the novel:

Beyond the house and Fitz’s forest, the mountains spread out north and west. The sight of them, the magnificent stretch of them, was enough to bring my mother to her feet again. She swayed through the paddock towards the gate. Cattle moved quietly around her, looking dim.

When she reached the gate she used it to step up onto Houdini’s back. She took his mange and steered his head to face the highest point of the mountains. Then she leant in close to his ear and said, My friend, even if I fucking die and rot upon your back, do not stop until we get there.

“Mother” is Jessie Hickman and we know from a short sentence before the prologue that her story is based on the real Jessie Hickman — given my limited knowledge of Australian frontier characters, I had never heard of her. While author Collins takes some time to reveal the details of the back story (which I’m assuming are familiar to many Australian readers), it doesn’t seem to be a spoiler to sketch some of them here.

In her teenage and young adult years, Jessie was an accomplished horse and cattle rustler — alas, not so accomplished that she didn’t get caught. She is in prison when in October, 1917 Fitzgerald Henry shows up to, quite literally, take possession of her. Jessie had listed “horse-breaker” as one of her skills — as a condition of her release she has to accept an offer of employment and Fitz wants her as his apprentice, allegedly to break horses for the war effort.

Actually, Fitz is quite a bit more interested in a talent she has not put on her form (horse-stealing) and while Jessie is expected to “occasionally serve as his domestic” that latter task mainly involves being raped when he returns to his ranch drunk from a visit to the nearby village. Her horse (and cattle) rustling ability is his major interest.

I have included a fair number of quotes to provide a sense of the voice that Collins uses in the novel. While she thankfully does not often return to the buried newborn one, Jessie’s tale as a fugitive is told in the same dry, present tense tone — in its own way, it supplies a sepia-like patina that one appreciates in a frontier novel.

Jessie will experience a number of successes, trials and tribulations as she pursues her goal of getting to “the highest point in the mountains” which I am choosing not to get into here. She will run into a number of interesting characters (I particularly liked her time spent with a gang of runaway youths who are as good at horse and cattle rustling as she is) and they add depth to the fugitive story. I am not sure that there are enough “female frontier fugitives” in fiction for it to qualify as a genre, but there are certainly some, at least in North American lore — and Collins’ version of Jessie’s Australian story is a worthwhile addition to the list.

While I hadn’t planned it, The Burial is the second Australian frontier novel I have read in recent months. Alex Miller’s Watching The Climbers On The Mountain has some similar characteristics (the punishing isolation of a cattle station, abuse of the central female character, the “misfit” aspect of most of the characters and a search for escape) but uses a far different voice — perhaps that is one reason why I was impressed with the one that Collins employs in this novel.

Either way, as an acknowledged aficionado of North American frontier fiction, I was enrolled in the story in both books. Collins does not yet have the developed writing talent that Miller shows (he has published a dozen novels, after all) but she shows enough in this debut to indicate that her work bears watching in the future.

KfC’s 2013 Project: The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy

January 18, 2014

Translated by Alan Brown

Silent, she thought that poverty was like a sickness you put to sleep inside you, and it didn’t hurt too much as long as you didn’t move. You grew used to it, you ended up not paying much attention to it as long as you stayed tucked away with it in the dark; but when you took the notion of going out with it in daylight, it became frightening to the sight, so ugly you could not expose it to the sun.

Personal collection

Personal collection

The “you” in that excerpt is Rose-Anna Lacasse, matriarch of the Montreal family who are the central characters of The Tin Flute, and those two sentences aptly summarize her approach to life: poverty is there, will be there forever and the best way to deal with it is to treat it as “a sickness you put to sleep inside you.”

Rose-Anna is not a dreary, defeated character — she is anything but. Yet there is a rigorous code that she applies to life: whenever things look to be improving, take care to contemplate the downside that will inevitably follow. It is just fine to enjoy the moment when you can, but don’t enjoy it too much — that will lead to even greater heartbreak when things return to the worse.

Her husband, Azarius, is the polar opposite. A qualified carpenter, the Depression has left him wandering from one hopeless job to another for years (and there were periods spent on the dole as well). Unlike Rose-Anna, who takes care to treat her poverty as a given that should never be ignored, Azarius lives in a dream world where escape is just a lucky heart beat away. Here’s the way Rose-Anna evaluates him:

And Azarius, poor fellow, he’d never learn, what new idea did he have up his sleeve. True, he was working and bringing home his pay — not much but enough to make ends meet. Yet day after day he was dreaming up new projects, wanting to quit his job as a taxi-driver, try something else — as if you could be choosy when you had children to feed, and fresh worries at home every minute of the day. As if you were free to say, in such a case, That job suits me, I have no use for this one … But that was Azarius all over, always ready to give up a sure thing for something new, his whole life long.

As The Tin Flute opens, Rose-Anna and Azarius have been living with their contradictory approaches for almost two decades — Rose-Anna is expecting the couple’s thirteenth child (although not all have survived). They have spent all those years in the lower-class, industrial neighborhood of St. Henri in Montreal, surrounded by the gloom of belching factories with a railway line cutting through the public square.

There are bigger, broader tensions that are ever-present in the background of Gabrielle Roy’s novel. The conflict between the rich Anglos and the working class Francophones. Urbanization, which has led to farm-raised girls like Rose-Anna having to find their way in the city. And that peculiar Montreal institution where tenancies in lower-cost housing all expire on May 1, setting off a city-wide outbreak of household moves — for Rose-Anna and Azarius, that has meant every May a relocation to accommodation that is a step or two below the one preceding.

The biggest over-riding factor of all in the present of the novel, for the young Francophone males of St. Henri at least, is World War II. On the one hand, enlisting means lining up to fight in a war to defend the English oppressors who have created this poverty — and the dreaded prospect of conscription looms. On the other, enlisting provides a steady income, albeit at some risk — and if you stretch things, the future of Mother France herself is at stake in this foreign war.

I have come a long way into this review without even introducing the most important (well, at least most sympathetic) character, Rose-Anna and Azarius’ daughter, Florentine. She works at the lunch counter at the Five and Ten in St. Henri and represents the prospect of “future”, whatever that might mean as the novel’s opening shows:

Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty.

The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clicking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life in St. Henri.

Florentine is not the only voice of the future in The Tin Flute — her two suitors, Jean and Emmanuel, bring opposing alternatives (brutally speaking, the selfish and altruistic) into play. Suffice to say that author Roy is realist enough that the careful “middle path” represented by Florentine (and her mother) is the one that proves most appropriate in this novel.

Indeed, Roy effectively illustrates that in a poignant scene that provides the title for The Tin Flute. Florentine’s youngest sibling, the sickly Daniel, has expressed a desire for a tin flute. Rose-Anna, in a rare excursion outside the immediate neighborhood, has dressed-up and stopped in at Florentine’s counter for lunch. It has been a good “tip” day for the daughter and she gives her mother two dollars to spend and watches as Rose-Anna heads off into the store proper:

Suddenly all the joy Florentine had felt turned to gall. Her happiness at being generous gave way to an aching stupor. What she had done had led to nothing.

At the back of the store Rose-Anna stopped at the toy counter. She was looking at a little tin flute, but she quickly put it back when a salesgirl approached. Florentine realized that between Daniel’s wish and the shiny flute there would always be her mother’s good intention — an intention repressed. And between her own wish to help Rose-Anna and the impossibility of doing so, nothing would be left but the hurting memory of today’s small, vain attempt.

She made herself smile at her mother who, in the distance, seemed to be asking for her advice: Should I buy the shining flute, the slim and pretty flute, or the stockings, the bread, the clothing? Which is more important? A flute like a ray of sunshine in the hands of a sickly boy, a flute breathing sound of happiness or the daily bread for the family table? Tell me, Florentine, which should I buy?

I don’t need to tell you which choice Rose-Anna makes.

The Tin Flute was published in 1945, the same year as Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another volume in my 2013 project reviewed here a few months ago. Both tell the story of a Quebec that is struggling to come to terms with its mid-twentieth century reality — in a short afterword to the New Canadian Library version that I read, critic Philip Stratford aptly summed up the different approaches:

MacLennan’s novel described the political and economic tensions of a society in transition; Roy’s captured the social and psychological stress of a generation migrating from country to the city. His approach was that of the historian; hers more the dramatist’s.

If I may be permitted to risk a comparison, Roy plays Dickens in contrast to MacLennan’s Trollope. I tend to prefer novels that have a broader, societal context so it is no surprise that Two Solitudes said more to me but in no way is that a put-down of The Tin Flute — in its own way, the family drama of Roy’s novel is even more compelling and I can understand why many readers regard it as the better novel. I can only say that almost 70 years on, both deserve reading.

Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong

January 14, 2014

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Canada’s largest independent publisher, House of Anansi, had at least one innovative success in 2013. While most English language publishers are deserting all but the best-known writers when it comes to short story collections, almost exactly a year ago Anansi announced its new Astoria imprint, devoted to short fiction. In addition to grouping backlist collections under the imprint (you can find the Astoria website here), they promise to deliver three new collections a year.

Anansi hit one out of the park right off the top with this initiative: Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing became only the fourth story collection to win the Giller Prize (Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro wrote two of the four, so it is good company). Coady is a well-established writer, so her inclusion on the Astoria list was somewhat predictable — as was Peter Behren’s Travelling Light (which I have not read). Théodora Armstrong wrote the third collection published in 2013, taking the honors as the first debut writer to be featured by Astoria and I was eager to see the results.

Jumping straight to the chase, I would have to conclude that they are mixed. Of the eight stories in Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility I found a couple were very good to excellent, a few more just fine and some wanting (probably more a reflection of my taste than a question of quality as I will explain later in this review). I will focus this review on my two favorites.

One is the title story. The narrator is an air traffic controller in Kamloops, British Columbia, hardly a high traffic area but one that has its own set of challenges. While Armstrong alerts the reader in the opening paragraph that a mayday call will feature in the story, she also takes some care to make sure we are aware that the mundane aspects of the job are also a factor:

On winter days when storms keep the planes grounded, we pass the time between weather updates reading, doing crosswords, arguing current events that seem worlds away. No cellphones, no laptops or electronic distractions of any kind allowed on the Floor. It’s the idleness that gets me agitated and picking at my thumb cuticles while others around here delight in the boredom, tilt their chairs back, kick their feet up and brush the potato chip crumbs off their shirts, enjoying the blur around the margins of their lives. It’s no exaggeration to say I work with some lazy slugs. John breathes through his mouth for Christ’s sake, like a sick person.

The day of the mayday call is the opposite of mid-winter — it is mid-summer, the temperature is in the thirties and the call comes from a water-bombing plane fighting one of the forest fires that constantly rage in the summer in the interior of B.C.:

“Golf Foxtrot Victor Bravo. Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

I’m aware of the pause — a mere second and a half — even as I’m responding to the mayday. The lapse is a weakness I didn’t realize I had in me. Static fills my head as my heart starts to pump faster.

“Golf Foxtrot Vitor Bravo.” I say, “Pacific Radio received mayday, state the nature of your emergency.”

John slides the binder with our emergency protocol across the desk toward me and I begin flipping through the pages. Suddenly I feel wide awake, my heart a stopwatch tick-tocking and the air rushing through my chest. Voice procedure shrinks the Floor to an airless box: language reduced until there is no room for interpretation. There are very specific things I need to say and do written in clear detail on the pages of this binder. All I need to do is follow them in a straight line, top of the page to bottom.

The pilot had spoken to the control tower earlier, reporting “a small leak in the gas tank he attributed to a possible rupture after picking up his load” (for those unfamiliar with forest-fire fighting, the bombers pick up their water by skimming the surface of nearby lakes). He said then that he planned to drop his load and then head back to the airport — now he is losing fuel fast and a crash is inevitable. When the crash comes and the radio goes silent, the air controllers can see the resulting fireball from their tower.

All of that action takes place in the first five pages of a 38-page story — most of it is devoted to the after-effects the narrator experiences following the crash. While part of that involves the inevitable detail of the investigation, most is devoted to how it unsettles everyday aspects of the narrator’s life, his relations with his partner Angie and a couple of university friends who don’t really appreciate what is involved in a job where failure or simply a misstep can lead to people losing their lives. Described that way, I confess it seems like slim pickings for a story — to author Armstrong’s credit, one of her strengths is the ability to concretely capture the little details that have enormous impact on an individual’s life. It is a talent that is well-illustrated in this story.

I’ll confess that personal experience probably was a major factor in my other favorite from the collection, “The Art of Eating”. This one features the tale of the chef of a seaside West Vancouver restaurant. West Vancouver is an upscale community of incredible beauty, looking across the inlet to Stanley Park — the Western shore features an assortment of restaurants like the one featured in this story and Mrs. KfC and I have eaten in many of them, perhaps even the one that inspired this story.

Today he will sit down with Susan [the manager] to negotiate a salary increase, because Charlie feels he deserves more. He knows food and he loves food and he’s a big man because of it — not morbidly obese or anything, but a bit of a fatso. When Charlie came to the restaurant three years ago, the menu was all over the place — eggrolls alongside pierogi, an Indonesian stir-fry next to a pasta Bolognese. The previous chef had been fired after he went across the street for a midnight dip in the ocean with some of the underage staff members and then left his underpants to dry in the back hall. Charlie’s fairly sure he’s looking pretty good by comparison.

Okay, Charlie’s problems (and the restaurant’s) are hardly earth-shattering, but once again Armstrong takes the ordinary and makes it interesting. As in the title story, most of “The Art of Eating” (which weighs in at 56 pages) is devoted to the web of issues that Charlie faces (not the least being the imminent arrival of his first child) — Armstrong’s strength is again the way she develops the detail around them.

I suspect that strength is also present in the stories that did not land with me — the central characters in those stories are children or teenagers and I will admit that their problems simply did not engage me the way that the two that I have cited did. Suffice to say that I was impressed enough with this collection that I will be keeping an eye out for Armstrong’s next book.

A final note for those who like short stories: British Columbia has a couple of excellent creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and UBC — every year, we see the publication of worthwhile volumes from writers trained at or affiliated with the programs. Check out reviews of Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives for a couple previously reviewed here. With Anansi’s commitment to shorter fiction with its Astoria imprint, readers have every reason to expect to see more new writers from British Columbia showing up in the future.

Laura, by Larry Watson

January 7, 2014

Purchased at

Purchased at

Paul Finley is a precocious eleven-year-old, his father a book editor, his mother a teacher at a Boston women’s college. As Laura opens, the year is 1955, but his parents are precursors of the hippie-era that won’t arrive until midway through the next decade: each summer, the family escapes the humid heat of Boston to summer at a Vermont cottage. That cottage becomes a playground for writers, artists and intellectuals most of whom arrive bearing gifts of toys, games or sports equipment for Paul or his sister: “The problem, however, was that these gifts quickly found their way into the hands of the adults.”

But all this is backdrop and stage-setting, my attempt to set the time and place of that season’s essential occurrence: in the summer of 1955 I met Laura Coe Pettit, and the moment of that meeting was the one from which I began a measurement of time. Clocks and calendars can try to convince us that time always passes in equal measure, but we know better. Our thirty-fifth summer passes five times faster than our seventh, and for years my life speeded up or slowed down according to my meetings with or departures from Laura.

The narrative voice that introduces the reader to Laura obviously comes from a mature, adult Paul looking back but there is a remarkable sense of the present not just in this introduction but in the other memories that will come to his mind as the novel unfolds. Paul’s initial sight of Laura comes when he awakes to find her looking out the window in his bedroom — a somewhat drunk Laura (“I could smell the liquor on her breath, that heavy aroma like something sweet about to go sour. I had learned to identify the smell from my father.”) has escaped from the party downstairs.

Laura is a novel about a childhood infatuation that almost instantly becomes a lifelong obsession. Laura and Paul exchange a few awkward words, but the boy is already hooked:

I did not want her to leave me alone. As bewildered, apprehensive, and uncertain as I was about her presence, I still wanted her to stay. At eleven, though baseball and the Boy Scout manual dominated my life, another part of me escaped their rule. This was the part interested in, among other things, romantic novels about errant knights and endangered maidens. And I did more than read about the subject. More than once I had climbed the stairs with an imaginary sword in my hand, a cascade of bloodied foes behind me. When I reached the tower (my room) I burst through the door, ready to rescue the diaphanously gowned woman who was lashed to a chair just the way the woman was on the cover of Montaldo’s Revenge, a paperback lying around the house that summer. (The ropes crossed her breasts in an X, and high on her bare arm was the red mark of the lash.) No doubt this play was part of my awakening sexuality, but I wasn’t yet aware of it. And now a peculiar version of my fantasy was coming true. A beautiful young woman was in my room, though I, without sword or shield, was probably the one in need of rescue. I slept in my underpants, and I tried to pin down the sheet that covered me by unobtrusively pressing down on one of its folds with my forearm.

I’ve included that extended quote for a couple of reasons. One of the characteristics of obsessions is that they don’t change over time. The knight who is “probably the one in need of rescue” described here is a fair depiction of what Paul will be like for the next 30 years whenever Laura Coe Pettit is in the neighborhood or comes to mind. Equally important, however, is the revisionism that is apparent as this memory is recalled for that too will become a common feature as Paul presents his memories. Each time Paul recalls a scene or incident involving Laura and recounts the story, the weight of present-day interpretation being imposed on what really happened back then is readily apparent.

Laura has the honor of getting the title of the book, so it is worth sketching a bit about her. At the time of that first meeting in 1955, she is already a young poet of some reputation. Among certain academic circles (although not all) that reputation will grow — some will proclaim her as being as good as Emily Dickinson. To some extent her personality will offset that reputation. Like many writers, she has a deep-rooted lack of confidence which she protects by being aggressively offensive in her personal relations — the apparent contradiction will be familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with writers. It also shows up in her personal life — she alternates periods of hermit-like withdrawal with others where she actively (and awkwardly) seeks the public stage.

But while Laura gets the title, this novel is really about Paul — we see her only through his revised and edited memories. He doesn’t share her artistic tendencies; indeed, he never really understands her poems despite repeated efforts. His adolescent and young adult life is dominated by a scene he witnessed of Laura and his father making love — even as a teenager, he is competing with his father in his obsession. Paul’s father dies young, but that does not change things much. Paul goes on to become a pediatrician (a nice, safe role) and marries a woman (soft-spoken, always decent) who is everything that Laura is not but rather than serving as a balm to his obsession that apparent normality only makes it worse.

Laura is Larry Watson’s fifth novel and my fourth — you can find reviews of his first three (Montana 1948, Justice and White Crosses here). An interview with Watson at the conclusion of my Washington Square Press edition contains an important admission, however: he wrote a draft of Laura before writing the other three “but I struggled with it on and off for years”.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Laura, I would have to say that that struggle shows. One of the great strengths of those other three is Watson’s development of his fictional community of Bentrock, Montana — for this reader, the way that the author locates his characters in that Western town is a major plus. He does not do that in this book (the setting eventually moves from the Northeast to Wisconsin) and I missed that grounding — the story of this novel is pretty much restricted to Paul and his notion of what Laura is as time passes. Those other novels develop secondary characters; this one uses them strictly as props for the two protagonists.

I am impressed enough with Watson that I have committed to reading his catalogue in order — the publication of Let Him Go a few months ago means that I now have five more to go. Despite some minor concerns with this novel, I am delighted to have four still on the horizon. I have previously confessed an affection for western novelists both past and present (check the sidebar for reviews of Wallace Stegner and Guy Vanderhaeghe for just two examples) — Larry Watson holds his own with the best of them. While Laura may lack the Western touch that makes him a personal favorite, it is still a very impressive novel.

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