There is a moment late in Justin Go’s first novel in which the protagonist, reading from a book called “The Icelandic Sagas” learns that in these ancient stories, “personalities are shown through action, seldom through analysis.”
The same technique guides Go’s fiction, but it has its shortcomings for a literary novel — even one structured explicitly as a quest, complete with chapter titles like “The Bloodline” and “The Reckoning,” and a young hero fortuitously named Tristan.
Beyond his name, nothing much identifies Tristan as heroic in “The Steady Running of the Hour”: He’s a young college graduate from San Francisco with an interest in European history. Secretive London solicitors have told him that he has seven weeks to prove his biological connection to the original beneficiary of an outlandish fortune, and with barely a backward glance, he hoists his backpack to chase his grail through Europe.
Although Tristan’s story is written in the first person and the present tense, it conveys almost nothing about how he feels upon learning that he could inherit a fortune worthy of a Bond villain. His internal monologue is both bland and awkward and often betrays the author’s impatience to just get on with the action, already. When a young woman in a bar challenges Tristan to explain his attitude toward this life-changing wealth, the best he can muster is “It just makes me feel weird. . . . It’s just money. There are better things to care about.” Instead of making Tristan seem morally deep, this refusal to reflect on what the money could mean comes off as merely dense.
Go’s real interest, however, lies in the story Tristan is pursuing to prove his right to the inheritance. That investigation takes us back to a meeting between two young people in London in 1916: mountain-climber Ashley Walsingham, heir to a vast shipping fortune, and Imogen Soames-Andersson, rebellious daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Swedish family.
Six days before Ashley ships out for France, they begin an affair that results in a child who may or may not be Tristan’s grandmother. Decades later, as the legal deadline looms, Tristan must prove his lineage to inherit everything Ashley left in trust for Imogen when he joined an ill-fated Everest attempt in 1924.
The plot, with its combination of world war, doomed romance and exotic locations, seems designed to catch the attention of Hollywood producers in search of another “English Patient.” And, indeed, Go’s strengths lie in his screenplay-ready dialogue, which feels both naturalistic and specific to time and place. He is a particularly keen chronicler of altered states and the skewed insights that come to the sleep-deprived, jetlagged or hungover.
The depiction of Ashley’s war experience is particularly unsparing and evocative. Despite some familiar tropes — the boy who has enlisted underage, the long marches through the mud, the hard-drinking upper-class officers — there are flashes of insight, as when Ashley surveys the battlefield and its primitive weapons: “When they are in a museum one day, he thinks, they will know how we went back to the Middle Ages. But Ashley had seen medieval weapons in the Tower of London and even the poorest had been finer and cleaner tools than some in this war.”
Go’s story draws on the fascinating historical connection between the war and the early Everest expeditions, in which survivors and those too young to have fought were driven to prove themselves by “assaulting” the impossible mountain. Ashley’s own drive, however, is muted and unclear, in this and in his desire for Imogen.
The novel insists on the romantic power of thwarted love, which gives way to unthinking obsession: “In truth he knows so little of her. He had fallen for Imogen so quickly that there had not been time to decide what he truly thought of her, as if it mattered.”
But it does matter. Their love affair reaches a crisis when Imogen, characterized mainly by beauty and impetuosity, travels to the war zone to insist that Ashley leave the war, knowing full well that desertion is a capital offense.
Lacking a more unyielding taboo like adultery or class difference, the plot turns on the characters’ personal choices, but the novel remains frustratingly reluctant to explore the moral consequences of those choices.
Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.