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.