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Thomas A. Donahue
5.0 out of 5 starsSome Values Don't Age Well.
Reviewed in the United States on March 17, 2018
I enjoy all the Larry Watson novels. This one is definitely included. His exploration of small town life in the Montana vastness, most often set in the 1960's, provides an excellent platform from which to see ourselves as a people. The timeframe is far enough away to give a perspective, but close enough for us to see ourselves in the characters' lives and actions. In this novel he plumbs the tough guy myths that pervade not only Montana but much of the American frontier vision. We have the grandfather who is clearly incapable of expressing human emotions lest his façade of strength be pierced. This inability even overrides his relationship with a very good woman whom we hope will be able to develop a longterm relationship with him. The other men and boys in the novel, with one exception, also behave violently and senselessly. The point seems to be that the lone cowboy tough guy myth may have mattered in a previous era, but it has long outlived its usefulness and causes nothing but pain and loneliness now. I really enjoy the perspective Watson creates by writing so much of his work from the point of view of a child in the coming-of-age mode. His observations are often trenchant. His motives are often better than even he understands, even as his actions sometimes create outcomes that border on the disastrous. Watson doesn't cut us any breaks. "Here it is," he says, "humanity. Think about it."
Back in 1993, Wisconsin author Larry Watson saw his first novel published. Montana 1948 was a classic about justice, family ties and the harsh landscape of eastern Montana. Watson’s next novel, Justice, was similar and also set in Montana. Watson followed those two books with seven other novels, but now a new one has been added to his bibliography: As Good As Gone, published in June. It is also set in the stark landscape of eastern Montana. Watson was born and raised in Rugby and Bismarck, North Dakota, where the terrain is similarly barren and tends to weather those who live there for long. Watson taught English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 25 years, then moved to Milwaukee in 2003 and became a visiting professor at Marquette University in 2003. He also has strong ties to Door County, Wisconsin, but has eastern Montana ink in his pen. As Good As Gone is Watson at his best. The story is set in 1963. The characters are true and unique, and Watson goes the distance in painting them and their relationships. He does so without even a suggestion of pretense. Everything in the book rings true to life. The writing is subdued, with Watson letting the story come to the reader instead of force-feeding it. Consider this about two teenagers – boyfriend and girlfriend: "It was the first hot day of spring, and their plan had been to spread a blanket under a tall cottonwood and make love to the applause of its leaves." Watson is a wordsmith of great talent and finesse. When he explains a boy’s ignorance of sexual matters, Watson conveys that without being graphic, and gives the whole picture immediate depth by choosing the right words. "Will’s friends were far better educated in sexual matters than Will. He acted as though he knew what they were talking about, but most of the time he felt as if he had been absent or asleep when all this essential information was given out. He was determined not to ask, however. He hadn’t understood long division at first either, and now arithmetic was one of his best subjects." Watson gives an amazing level of attention to finding precisely the right words, creating the perfect sentence and evoking both the best image and the most effective flow of thoughts. And he accomplishes it with subtlety. The story is about tension between well-envisioned characters. The characters are complete people, complex individuals who are more than the sum of their circumstances. For example, the positive relationship between a “good” white man and a character described as a “bad Indian” makes sense because the two, as 10-year old boys, shared a happy experience one Christmas during the height of the Great Depression. This is the kind of detail that makes Watson’s characters three-dimensional. And – in an area of great wealth in Watson’s novels – the landscape is as much a character as the individuals who live there or pass through it. In the end, this book is a celebration of how powerful the written word can be when it is viewed as a gift and used as a gift with great value and potential. This book is a good read, and an honor to read, if for no other reason than to see how well a creative writer can turn letters into words string them together into images that ring true and have lasting worth.
** Possible spoilers ** I was really looking forward to reading this book, as it delves into themes of loss, father/son estrangement, the changing role of men in society, the nature of violence, etc. Unfortunately, the ending had a bit of a "wet firecracker" effect.
After a slow buildup of the potential violence inherent in the main character (and his tendency to take justice into his own hands), he proceeds to whip a young punk a bit with a garden hose. (Um...what?) He then gets in a pretty senseless fight with a peripheral character and is soundly beaten, after which he simply leaves. This just made a well-drawn, slightly flawed protagonist seem a bit silly. Sure, he lived tough, talked tough, walked tough, and EVERY OTHER CHARACTER considered him to be tough, but the climactic point in the story had him behave in ways that simply didn't fit with how the character was created up to that point.
The secondary characters also had interesting internal conflicts regarding their own relationships and sense of self, but the conflicts are brought up, danced around and then never fully addressed or concluded. Of course, that may have been the point, but you're not even left with enough to want to ponder it a bit.
The themes that were brought up were also not fully addressed. There was the potential for a truly great protagonist that was never fully realized. Overall, it was disappointing. I gave it three stars because, other than what I've pointed out here, the writing was good. Good dialog, good descriptions, a great sense of atmosphere... It's just too bad more wasn't done with them. It started off with all the earmarks of a home run, but sadly ended up as a pop fly.