The Wild Wild West
SO BRAVE, YOUNG, AND HANDSOME
By Leif Enger
Atlantic Monthly. 287 pp. $24
The trouble with writing a great first novel is that sooner or later you have to contemplate a second one. It's a predicament that must have occurred to Leif Enger, whose debut, Peace Like a River, was a runaway bestseller, because he's decided to give that very problem to Monte Becket, the charming and disarming protagonist of Enger's second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome.
The year is 1915, and Monte is a postman who writes on the side. His first novel, a romantic adventure about a dashing Pony Express rider, turned out to be a surprise hit. Carried away by the hyperbolic fan mail that poured into the post office in Northfield, Minn., Monte made a decision: "I quit being a postman and started calling myself an author." This was a mistake, of course.
The protagonist of Monte's bestseller, Martin Bligh, was a romantic version of Monte himself, Pony Express riders being to postmen what brain surgeons are to school nurses. " Martin Bligh had not been difficult to write," Becket says. "Whatever I wanted to do, that's what Martin did. He rode in all weathers, flouting night and blizzard; he defied the wicked; he kissed the pretty girl. How hard could it be to do something similar again?"
But when So Brave opens, Monte is sitting on the porch of his house overlooking the Cannon River, struggling to reach his 1,000-words-a-day quota and growing more disenchanted -- with himself and his wooden characters -- by the moment. He has started six novels since his chartbuster success, all of them failures. "I needed a revelation," he confides, "but you know how it is. I would have settled for a nice surprise."
The nice surprise turns out to be Glendon Hale, a white-haired, runaway outlaw whose mysterious appearance, as he rows upstream through the mist above the Cannon River, acts as a siren song for Monte, who has been drowning in the sea of despair that afflicts writers who cannot write. Before long, Monte has kissed his understanding wife and child good-bye and set off with Glendon on an epic journey from Minnesota to Mexico. Glendon plans to lay his overdue apologies at the feet of the wife he deserted many years before, when the cops were hot on his trail for some undisclosed crimes and he skipped town. That act of cowardice has been gnawing at his gentleman-outlaw's heart ever since.
In a way, Enger's formula for So Brave is the same one Monte used for Martin Bligh. The novel is an old-fashioned, swashbuckling, heroic Western, with pistols and ponies and señoritas and sharpshooters. Monte admits that whenever he found himself at a loss for words in describing what should happen next to Martin Bligh, he "put a swift river in front of his horse and sent the two of them across!" So Brave takes advantage of that same marvelously simple formula. Things just keep happening in this novel, and even preposterous sentences like this one -- "Glendon had reached the Rienda Valley two weeks earlier, riding a sand-colored cow-horse purchased from a shrewd Arizonian midget" -- don't seem problematic in the context of this larger-than-life landscape.
The two companions head west across Kansas and Oklahoma, through ranches and small towns, by campfires and abandoned cabins, through flood and fire and by starlight and high noon. There's not much that doesn't happen to Monte over the course of the novel, most of it at the hand of Charlie Siringo, the possessed ex-Pinkerton detective who is close on Glendon's trail and itching to take him in. Siringo, a real late-19th-century lawman who penned his autobiography (with the terrific title of A Texas Cowboy: or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony), is the novel's most compelling portrait, a demonic crusader who wants to bring in Glendon Hale, even if it costs him his life or his soul, whichever comes first.
So Brave, Young, and Handsome is an adventure of the heart and mind as much as of the body. This second novel from Enger will not move you as deeply as Peace Like a River did, but it is far more than just a hectically plotted cowboy adventure story. A famous literary editor once said, "Never be sincere. Sincerity is the death of writing." But Enger proves him wrong. His new novel is romantic but not silly. It belongs to a golden time at the edge of our collective memory of what life -- and stories -- were like when the West was young and a tale was something to read aloud at night under the lamplight. The world Enger writes about here is a vanished one, but Enger has brought it back to life by the force of his belief. ·
Carrie Brown's most recent novel is "The Rope Walk." She teaches at Sweet Briar College.