Leif Enger and the outlaw journeys

January 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

I must put in a word for Leif Enger. Not as if he needs a word put in for him, by me; his debut novel, Peace Like a River, established itself as a bestseller years ago. I actually am reading this one second – as many times as I stumbled across the book while going to college, working in a bookstore, generally hanging with literary sorts – I didn’t, for some reason, feel the need to dive in with everyone else. (Sometimes I am contrary and refuse to read what is most popular. I did the same with Angela’s Ashes. Years later I picked it up and scarfed it down with the right combination of sorrow and appreciation.)

Enger drew me in, instead, with So Brave, Young, and Handsome, a novel which, you might guess, got me with its title. But it wasn’t about dashing young cowboys as I suspected on first glance. Instead it follows a postman, a family man named Monte Becket who’s had a one-hit wonder of a book and is trying, and failing, to write another. He happens to meet an older, gentle, drifter of a man who turns out to be a former outlaw. And this man has a dream, and it is of the wife of his youth, and he feels that he needs to go and find her and apologize for the past. So our postman-narrator gets invited to accompany him, and what adventures follow!

As much as the plot is rollicking and suspenseful enough that it tugs you along, what I (having spent most of my twenties trying to understand and practice the craft of writing) kept feeling so terribly happy about were two other things: (1) that his characters are colorful, believable, unique, and endearing – you want to spend time with them; and (2) that he uses language with such understated skill as he goes about unfolding his story. Beautiful, as one who has read and listened and practiced and revised extensively can make a story – can structure phrases, sentences, and moments. All throughout I would find myself pausing and even catching my breath, because that is what happens when something goes beyond what you expect, even when you have high expectations, with the deftness and subtlety of the perfect extra detail, the unexpected observation.

So I went to the horse barn raving about So Brave, Young, and Handsome. My boss was about to go off for a trip and needed something to read, and in the airport she found Enger’s other book, Peace Like a River. She sent me a text after skimming the first few pages, telling me how excited she was to read it; when I ran into her next the first thing she said to me was, “Love the book!” And when she finished she lent it to me. And now I am reading with the same kind of reaction I had to the first – hunger for the story, gladness to be reading, thankfulness for the kinds of writers who remain true to their art and yet, somehow, have also managed to make their work accessible to the general public (a feat that seems to be trickier than one would hope, and a source of frustration for many writers, who are torn between writing something with meaning or writing something that will sell). This story follows a boy named Reuben, and his sister and father, as they head West looking for the brother and son who has become a 20th century outlaw. I love this family. I want to know them. I feel as if I do.

Read his books! That’s all I’m saying.

Here are links to where you can find them, or your library likely has them:

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Peace Like a River

P.S. He’s a Minnesota writer. Which is even better.

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