Leif Enger, the author of Peace Like A River,has finally published his second novel. My fellow readers, I am happy to report that it was worth the wait.
So Brave, Young and Handsome takes place in 1915, as the twentieth century is taking hold and the Old West is fading away. Those readers who already love westerns will be amply rewarded; for everyone else, you’ll regret it if you pass on this one. Enger has peopled his novel with a cast of rich and satisfying characters. You have an old guy, Glendon Hale, who builds fine river skiffs, but in his prior life he built a reputation as a train robber. That’s not all, because he also has a bounty on his head for murder. Hale’s mysterious past includes a wife he abandoned shortly after their marriage and from whom he now seeks forgiveness. Then you have Monte Becket, the protagonist, a Minnesota farmer turned postal worker who wrote a wildly successful shoot’em up novel, but has lost, and is desperately seeking, his voice to write a second novel. And lastly, you have an aging ex-Pinkerton guard, Charles Siringo, now turned rogue bounty hunter seeking none other than Glendon Hale.
Becket has fallen under Glendon Hale’s spell. When Hale asks him to accompany him to Mexico to find his ex-wife, Becket agrees to go, telling his wife and son that he will be home in six weeks. His wife, Susannah, moved by Hale’s goal of forgiveness, encourages him to go. Becket marvels at his wife’s generosity. “Love is a strange fact—it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. It makes no sense at all.” Hale and Becket set out by train, continue by river skiff, and then, after an assault by a gang of no-good river rats, they travel on foot into a small town where they depart by automobile. At this point, another character, Hood Roberts, a most beguiling young man without a lick of sense, but with a heart filled with hope, becomes part of the journey. This is where we hear the strumming of a guitar and a haunting voice (could be Woody Guthrie?) singing the book’s title, So, Brave, Young, and Handsome, from the last verse of “The Cowboy’s Lament.”
Enger has in fact, written a sort of Canterbury Tales for the Old West. There are tales aplenty and no matter how many times Beckett vows to return home, he finds himself unable to break away from the next story: fire, flood, a wild-west show, robbery, patient wives and crooked gamblers. This novel should be read around a campfire on a clear night with the lowing of cattle in the background and the glitter of stars overhead.
Enger’s voice is pitch perfect and his take on the grace of redemption is as diverse and surprising as his characters. There are twists and turns, cruelty and kindness, honor and shame, and above all, there is hope. What intrigues me most about Enger’s writing is his near enchanting use of all things American, or in literary parlance, American mythology. The author places his readers in some very familiar territory and, without quite recognizing why, we are right at home. Yet we still want to know if Glendon Hale’s ex-wife will forgive him? Does Siringo ever get his man? Can Beckett find his voice for his next novel? Sorry, but if I told you, it would spoil the fun and trust me, this novel is a lot of fun.