Friday, February 27, 2009

So Brave, Young, and Handsome: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished So Brave, Young, and Handsome, skip this review (unless you enjoy having books spoiled for you).

Those who read my last post about So Brave, Young and Handsome know I was starting to sour on Enger somewhat. In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, I was struggling to find a likable character to root for. I was craving the powerful prose about grace and redemption I enjoyed so much of in Peace Like a River.

And while I'm still not comfortable calling So Brave, Young, and Handsome a masterpiece, I will say this:

I'm pleasantly suprised with the second half of this book. Enger stepped up. The more I read, the more I started caring about Monte Beckett. Of course, his being kidnapped certainly earned him sympathy points, but it let me put those troubling questions about why Monte wouldn't go home to his loving wife and son out of my mind.

More significantly, the more I read of this book, the more I started caring about Glendon's quest for forgiveness and grace (which is also why I think it's too bad we had to leave Glendon's story behind for roughly a hundred pages while Monte gets pushed around by the increasing-decrepit Siringo).

Here are a few final thoughts:

Glendon's Quest for Redemption Saves This Book

Enger's obviously at his best when he explores redemption. For example, on page 271, we read:

Susannah said, "Glendon's different now, isn't he."

"He's quit that whiskey," I said.

"Not just that. There's grace in him. He's reached some settlement."

There's a simple purity in Glendon's making a cross-country journey to offer an apology for his sins against Blue. What's even more powerful, though, is that along the way, Glendon decides to do more than apologize -- he decides to pay penance for his sins. He becomes a servant to the wife he once betrayed. In a symbolic gesture of his repentance, he's baptized. Finally, he willingly walks away with Siringo and accepts a prison sentence without quarrel (beautiful because prison has been his greatest fear throughout the book).

This transformation is why I'm comfortable calling this book "good." To witness a character move from crime to penance to grace will be pleasurable no matter how many times I read it (in the hands of a decent storyteller anyway). And while I'm still annoyed that Enger took me away from Glendon for the middle chuck of the book, I'm glad he came back to it and did it justice in the end.

The American West = Grace:

Here's a question. Why is it that in American literature grace, reinvention, and redemption seem to be found again and again in the American west? By the end of this book, Monte Beckett has decided that his writing career is over and that he needs to choose a new life. He chooses to live this life in the west, sending for his wife and child rather than returning to them and scraping out a new life in the east.

And then, while Beckett's not even looking for it, the west heals him and gives him what he's lacked. Consider the end:

After a while, a long while, without writing a word, why, a sentence arrived from nowhere. Not a great sentence--actually sort of a ragged one, in need of paring. I searched around for a pencil and write it down, a sentence about a white-haired man rowing upstream through the parting mists of the Cannon River.

"What are you writing?" asked Susannah. She was painting something, I couldn't see what.

"Just a sentence."

"She lifted her head, a daub of orange below her lip. "Read it to me," she said.

Suddenly, Beckett's writing again -- almost accidentally. The west has restored and reinvented him. I'm not sure what to make of this, but even though the west was "conquered" long ago, I see again and again in contemporary American literature the west being presented as the "new" world, the place we can go to find peace and restoration.

So, while there's so much more I could say about So Brave, Young, and Handsome, that's all for this post. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed your first WWADY featured book, and if you didn't read along with us, you can join us this month by reading along with Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome WWADY Rating = 7.5/10

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