Archive for the ‘Watson, Larry (4)’ Category

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.


Justice, by Larry Watson

January 7, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

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.

White Crosses, by Larry Watson

December 16, 2011

Purchased at

Anyone who has driven the rural highways of Prairie Canada or the United States has experienced the phenomenon: the white crosses, often with a bunch of very weathered plastic flowers tied to them, by the side of the road to mark and commemorate the site of a fatal accident. They supply the title for Larry Watson’s novel and come to Bentrock, Montana Sheriff Jack Nevelsen’s mind as he is heading out of town to a fatal accident in response to a call from his deputy:

Whenever a fatality occurred in a highway accident, a white cross was planted at the site, one cross for each death. Cautioning other travelers was the idea, to tell them that someone had died here, because of speed or carelessness or hazardous road conditions or simply bad luck. No doubt it made sense and had an effect — you approached that railroad crossing and saw five crosses bristling up from the weeds alongside the tracks and perhaps you looked carefully before proceeding. But were those five crosses from five separate accidents, indicating that here was a crossing where trains came out of nowhere, or were all the crosses from only one accident, from the night five teenagers heard the Empire Builder’s whistle and saw its light but still thought they could beat it to the crossing? What if you drove a highway only once, and by the time you noticed that single cross in the ditch you were already past it — what lesson could you take from that? Jack had seen bouquets of those crosses in places so dangerous they made you nod your head and say silently, yes, no question but that a heedless driver could meet his death here. But he had also seen crosses in places that brought nothing but puzzlement, that left you scratching your head and wondering what the hell a driver must have done to get himself killed along this ribbon-straight stretch of road.

Now two more crosses were going to be stuck in the soil of Mercer County.

(Digression: When I include quotes in reviews here, I hope that they offer visitors a capsule indication of what to expect from the author’s style and that very long one above is certainly meant to do that. One of Larry Watson’s distinctive characteristics is the tangential paragraph that delves into some detail what lies behind a seemingly mundane observation, like white crosses at the side of a rural road. Some readers may find it distracting — for this one, it adds a richness and depth that I very much appreciate.)

Sheriff Jack’s thoughts on the white crosses are a deliberate distraction for him because he wants to avoid thinking about the fatal accident before he gets there. It is graduation night in Bentrock, which means parties and drinking for the students — those who drink regularly, drink even more on grad night; those who don’t, often choose that night to start. The northeast Montana prairie town has been lucky so far, with no grad night fatalities, but that clean record seems to have come to a close.

When Jack arrives at the scene of the double fatality, he is not surprised. It is a dangerous 90-degree bend: “If you missed the curve, you were off the road in an instant and sailing toward a slough”. He knows the accident will mean doing something that he hates in his job, delivering the news to next of kin and that sparks memories of various previous bad experiences doing just that.

Matters quickly get worse for Jack, however. While the bodies have already been removed, his deputy supplies the news that will form the backbone for the remainder of White Crosses. Yes, one of the students was a graduand, Junie Moss. The other, the driver, was Leo Bauer:

Leo Bauer — a man who reminded Jack of himself in certain ways. Leo was about Jack’s age, tall, soft-spoken, a veteran. Leo had thinning hair combed straight back over his large head. A serious man. Jack had pictured him in the clothes he always wore — black Wellingtons, dress slacks, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a narrow dark tie. This was Leo’s uniform. He was the principal of Horace Mann School in Bentrock, grades one through eight, but even off the job — at a barbecue or at a town council meeting or at a high school basketball game — he was likely to be dressed the same way, perhaps without the tie. Oh, yes, Jack could see Leo Bauer clearly. And he could see Leo’s wife and son.

It takes the stumbling deputy a while to get to it, but he eventually informs Jack that there were three suitcases in the car: two of Junie’s and one with Leo’s clothes, although the name tag on the bag was that of Leo’s own graduating son, Richard. Still, the obvious conclusion has to be that the tight-laced elementary school principal was running off with a high school grad.

Jack arrives at another conclusion almost immediately: Bentrock cannot accept this scandal. In a review of Edith Wharton’s Sanctuary which I posted just a week ago, I highlighted a quote that included this observation: “…the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals….” Wharton used that to explain the way that high society New York preserved some of its dirty secrets. The rural Montana of Larry Watson shares exactly the same approach to keeping disturbing events discreetly buried — and Sheriff Jack decides it needs to be applied to deal with this dreadful accident.

So he creates another version of the story — the tangled web of deceit is put fully in place early in the novel and I am not spoiling it for any potential reader with what I have said so far. The bulk of the book concerns how the seemingly compact web of lies turns into a cat’s cradle where a pull on the string off to one side affects the whole structure. And at the middle of that complex web of lies — the only one who knows the real story — is Jack Nevelsen.

Regular visitors here will no recall how impressed I was with my first Larry Watson novel, Montana 1948, a few months back — it gives nothing away to say you will be reading about that novel again when I post my list of 10 best books for 2011 in a few days. That novel also is centred on the way that Bentrock goes about preserving secrets and also involves a sheriff. The “honeycomb of moral sewage” in the small town Prairie west is of every bit as much interest to Larry Watson as New York City’s is to Edith Wharton. And both of them are excellent at exploring their fascination with the power of the phenomenon.

Is White Crosses as good as Montana 1948? For this reader, no it’s not, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading this novel — the latter ranks close to 10 out of 10, this one rates more like 8.5 or 9, which still makes it excellent in my eyes. Montana 1948 (published in 1993) has a powerful spareness in its 169 pages that brings a sharpness to Watson’s portrayal of smalltown life that I have found in very few books. White Crosses was published five years later and its 371 pages have many more of the kinds of thoughtful musings that are illlustrated in the first paragraph that I quoted — they certainly add value, but they dull some of the razor-like perceptions that are Watson’s greatest strength. However you rate the two that I have read, I can only conclude that Larry Watson deserves to be mentioned with the best of the authors who portray the North American West.

Montana 1948, by Larry Watson

May 24, 2011

Purchased at

This post is several days late — for a very good reason. Montana 1948 is only 169 pages but I was fully aware after reading just a few that it is a very special novel, one that was not to be rushed, but rather set aside frequently to allow time for contemplation. That doesn’t happen to me often — I’m normally a quick reader, opting for a second read of outstanding books that I feel I have not done justice to on the first, too quick read-through. With Larry Watson’s novel, not only did I take several days for the first read, I immediately went back to the start when I did finish it — and spread that second experience out over several days as well.

“Exquisite” is an adjective that you see fairly often in reviews of shortish novels, but not one that I have ever used. Until now. Montana 1948 is “exquisite” in every sense of the word. Larry Watson’s book was published in 1993 but I had never heard of it until it made Trevor Berrett’s Top Ten list last year. Trevor was raised in Idaho, I live in Alberta and we share an interest in Western fiction — the Montana of this book (it is the hardscrabble prairie in the northeast corner of the state, not the famous mountains) would be midway between us, albeit a little further east.

David Hayden, the narrator of the book, is 52 years old at the time of writing but he alerts us in a prologue that he has waited 40 years to recall the summer of 1948.

From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them….

A young Sioux woman lies on a bed in our house. She is feverish, delirious, and coughing so hard I am afraid she will die.

My father kneels on the kitchen floor, begging my mother to help him. It’s a summer night and the room is brightly lit. Insects cluster around the light fixtures, and the pleading quality in my father’s voice reminds me of those insects — high-pitched, insistent, frantic. It is a sound I have never heard coming from him.

There are other images in the Prologue: “The events that produced those 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.”

Having alerted the reader to the confused pastiche of his memory — and introduced a few blurry images that promise ominous events — the narrator proceeds to apply a very deliberate approach to his project. The first third of the book is devoted to capturing what life was like in Bentrock, Mercer County, Montana where his father is in his second term as sheriff (having succeeded his own father — the Haydens represent both wealth and power in this desolate corner of the world).

And 1948 still felt like a new, blessedly peaceful era. The exuberance of the war’s end had faded but the relief had not. The mundane, workaday world was a gift that had not outworn its shine. Many of the men in Mercer Country had spent the preceding years in combat. (But not my father; he was 4-F. When he was sixteen a horse kicked him, breaking his leg so severely that he walked with a permanent limp, and eventually a cane, his right leg V-ed in, his right knee perpetually pointing to the left.) When these men came back from war they wanted nothing more than to work their farms and ranches and to live quietly with their families. The county had fewer hunters after the war than before.

All of which made my father’s job a relatively easy one.

Like most Prairie towns, Bentrock has a Native American community — and there is a level of accepted racism that delegates them as second-class. David’s family employs one, Marie Little Soldier, as a housekeeper — he loves Marie and her athletic boyfried as much as he does his own parents. The storm clouds of the novel start forming when Marie catches a cold that is threatening to turn into pneumonia — and she absolutely refuses to allow the town doctor (David’s Uncle Frank) to see her.

Unlike David’s 4-F father, Uncle Frank is a war hero and we are introduced to some of the tensions in the Hayden family at a homecoming picnic for the vets where Grandfather Hayden has the stage in his role as Bentrock’s outstanding citizen:

He said a few words honoring all the men who served (no one from Mercer County was killed in action — not such an improbability when you consider the county’s small population — though we had our share of wounded, the worst of whom, Harold Branch, came back without his legs). Then after a long, reverent pause, Grandfather announced, “Now I’d like to bring my son up here.”

My father was standing next to me when Grandfather said that. My father did not move. Grandfather did not say “my son the veteran,” or “my son the war hero,” or “my son the soldier.” He simply said, “my son.” And why wouldn’t the country sheriff be called on to make a small speech?

But my father didn’t move. He just stood there, like every other man in the crowd, smiling and applauding, while his brother stepped up on the table. Uncle Frank had not hesitated either; he knew immediately that Grandfather was referring to him.

I have included some longish quotes here to indicate the pace and discipline that Watson shows in his narrative style. He painstakingly establishes the elements of his story — family conflict, uncertain memory, overt racism, hints about justice versus convenience — before setting them in motion. All of it viewed with the benefit of 40 years of life lived by the narrator.

We know from the prologue that trauma will occur and it does; that David’s extended family will be split and they are; and that for a 12-year-old too many things are going to happen too quickly for him to comprehend. Watson uses that incompleteness and confusion to good effect — that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take just about as much time reading the book as 12-year-old David did when he experienced the events back in 1948.

The result was that I ended up “living” this book as much as I did “reading” it. And that was just on the first time through. I do have my favorite Western writers (Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wallace Stegner, John Williams, to name a few) and Larry Watson’s name is now added to that list. My only concern is that Montana 1948 is so good that his others just can’t compare — I may wait a few months before I put that to the test. In the meantime, do read this “exquisite” novel for yourself.

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