As much as I love reading books by first-time novelists, the experience always makes me nervous. What if I love their debut effort, anxiously await their second, only to be disappointed? What if they, like so many writers, only have one great book in them? After all, do any of these names ring a bell - Harold Faltermeyer, Thomas Dolby, Baz Luhrmann or The Buggles? Probably not. They are all One Hit Wonders of the musical world. The literary world has their own versions (I was just too lazy to research them), although there are also some very well-known writers who only wrote one great novel (a la Harper Lee).
Anyway, all this is a rambling way of saying that I picked up Leif Enger's So Brave, Young and Handsome wondering if it could possibly measure up to the exceptional Peace Like A River (see my review here). Although I can't say I liked his sophomore effort better than his freshman, I can attest that Leif Enger is no One Hit Wonder.
Apparently, the author contemplated these same questions, because So Brave, Young and Handsome concerns a man trying to find his next, great story. When the book opens, it is 1915, five years after Monte Becket published his best-selling adventure novel, Martin Bligh. With his publisher waiting anxiously for his next manuscript, he's feeling pressure to produce. In fact, he's written seven novels - he just hasn't finished any of them. "I'm grateful for that," he says, "and you should be too" (1). Monte's publisher is losing faith in him; Monte, himself, has reached the disturbing truth that he is "a well-meaning failure, a pallid disappointer of persons, a man fading" (76).
As Monte sits on his dock, contemplating his failures, he sees a strange sight: A white-haired man standing in his row boat, who "lurched like old Quixote, hooting to himself" (2). His curiosity piqued, Monte sets out to discover the identity of the boatman who "appeared a bit elevated, early though it was" (2). He soon meets Glendon Hale, who regals Monte and his family with tales of adventure and derring-do. It's not long before the author realizes that his new friend hides a colorful past [he gets a hint when Glendon offers this riddle: "I have been four different times on trains that got robbed, yet never lost a dime" (12)]. Monte soon discovers the old boatbuilder's secret: he is wanted for train robbery and other crimes. He's also haunted by memories of the wife he abandoned, when he fled from the Pinkerton detectives who were hot on his trail. Although it's dangerous for a man on the run, Glendon is determined to travel to Mexico and make amends with his one true love. When the old man asks Monte to come along, he barely hesitates.
Soon, the pair are on an adventure to rival any Monte can concoct in his imagination. Chased by the stubborn Charles Siringo, a former Pinkerton carrying a burning grudge against Glendon, the two flee across the West. On the way, they will encounter cowboys and old Indians, sharpshooters and Hollywood headliners, hail and floods, and plenty of drifters with their own stories to tell. As Monte follows Glendon down every jeapordous trail, he learns as much about himself as he does about his friend. Far from his home and family, Monte confronts the questions that haunt him: Can he write another book? Or will he be stuck working at the post office forever? Will he ever feel successful again? Will his family know him after his desperate journey, when he can't even recognize himself? And, most important of all, can he find another story within himself?
So Brave, Young, and Handsome offers everything I loved about Peace Like A River - compelling characters, an exciting adventure story, and masterful writing - but it definitely stands on its own merits. The Old West setting seduces as it always will. Although Enger presents a dying West, where the likes of Billy the Kid, old Iron Tail, Pancho Villa, and Buffalo Bill Cody are only whispers on the dry wind, it still bursts with adventure and romance. The characters are rich and colorful, especially the likeable Glendon. The words Monte's fictional critics used to describe Martin Bligh work here as well, for So Brave, Young and Handsome is indeed "an enchanting and violent yarn spun in the brave hues of history" (6).
Monte's critics also labeled his masterpiece "disturbingly real" (5), and that describes Enger's novel as well. There is violence in the book (although not graphic enough to stop me from labeling this book a "Clean Read"), but the most disturbing aspect is really Enger's illumination of man's duplicitous nature. This is what makes characters like Glendon Hale and Charles Siringo so fascinating to read about.
It's ironic that So Brave, Young, and Handsome is narrated by a failed author, because his story captured me from the first sentence. I know it's getting cliche, but I have to say, this one had me at hello. With his sophomore effort, Leif Enger proves he's no One Hit Wonder. I, for one, urge him to keep the hits coming.
Note: In case you're curious, here are the musicians I named and their single hits:
Harold Faltermeyer (Axel F), Thomas Dolby (She Blinded Me With Science), Baz Luhrmann (Everybody's Free [to Wear Sunscreen]), & The Buggles (Video Killed the Radio Star). Information from vh1.com.
Book image from Amazon.