In terms of literary chutzpah, writing your sophomore novel about a sophomore novelist is the kind of thing that tends to send eyebrows arching skyward. Maybe not as much as titling it “Winner of the National Book Award,” as Jincy Willett once did, but still, it’s a bold step. But with one move, Leif Enger defangs impending snarkiness with the deftness of a snake handler: He makes his character, Monte Becket, a failure.
“I am not penniless, brilliant, or an orphan; have never been to war, suffered starvation, or lashed myself to a mast,” Monte explains humbly at the opening of So Brave, Young, and Handsome. “My health is adequate, my wife steadfast, my son decent and promising. I am not surrounded by people who don’t understand me! In fact most understand me straightaway, for I am and always was an amiable fellow and reliably polite.” It’s a miracle he ever managed to write a word.
Enger’s first novel, in 2001, was “Peace Like a River,” a book with which I was so smitten that it rendered me incoherent. It was years before we could keep a copy of it in the house – I kept thinking of someone else who needed to read it. Miracles, faith, world-class cinnamon rolls, and epic cowboy poetry. Who could want anything more?
Given the cowboy poetry, it’s perhaps not surprising that his follow-up is set in the West, or at least the isolated relics of it left by 1915. One of those relics comes rowing by Becket’s Minnesota home one evening while Becket is trying, and failing, to write a follow-up to his unexpected bestselling novel, “Martin Bligh,” the adventures of a daring Pony Express rider.
Glendon Hale, a white-haired boatmaker with an affection for whiskey, becomes a welcome guest at the Becket home, where he regales Monte and his 11-year-old son with stories of his youth as a cowboy and snarfs up Susannah’s orange rolls with flattering appreciation. “I have been four different times on trains that got robbed, yet never lost a dime,” Hale tells the unfortunately christened Redstart.
Monte and Redstart assume this riddle means Hale used to be a detective. Readers will quickly figure out that Hale was the one holding the gun.
After 20 years of anonymous freedom, Hale wants to return to Mexico to ask forgiveness of the wife he abandoned when he fled the “federales.” His eyesight isn’t so good anymore, so he asks Monte to come with him as his traveling companion. With Susannah’s blessing, Monte and Hale set out by train – and almost immediately Hale gets recognized, and the two find themselves in the middle of a boy’s adventure tale.
As they travel in a temperamental Packard across Kansas (“It’s wide and there you have it”), hot on their heels comes the one character drawn from real life. Charles Siringo, an aged, former Pinkerton detective, still has a grip that can dislocate a man’s fingers (and here resembles Clint Eastwood without the affinity for jazz).
Siringo, like Monte, is an author – only he’s got plenty of real-life exploits to draw from. Siringo also has the uncanny ability to track Hale effortlessly over thousands of miles, a moderately unrealistic trait readers will remember from the detective in “Peace Like a River.”
Enger must love rivers almost as much as the Water Rat in “The Wind in the Willows.” There’s a flood, water bandits, and a snapping turtle – yet the plot turns listless at odd moments. (Except when Siringo is on hand). There’s not as much poetry – cowboy or otherwise – as in “Peace Like a River,” but “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” has charm to spare. Minor characters, ranging from a blond teenage desperado to an aging female sharpshooter will beguile readers before they get restive on the long journey to the Pacific.
Enger mentions “Don Quixote” periodically; certainly that gentle knight would have appreciated Hale’s grace and chivalry – as well as his doomed affair of honor. But Monte is the one who discovers the value of living life like an epic.
“This world ain’t no romance, in case you didn’t notice” one character tells Monte. But Monte begs to differ. “Violent and doomed as this world might be,” he replies, “a romance it certainly is.”