I just turned the last page of Leif Enger’s new book, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. It hit the shelves a couple of months ago and, yes, I’m a slow reader—correction—deliberate reader, because some books are too good to ever want to finish. I want them to keep going and going because I love the sounds of the words and the flow of the chapters and the nearness of the characters. I don’t want endings to those books. I want them to come along with me, and keep on like an old friend because I know I’ll mourn the passage once we part. This is such a book.
It’s set in the early days of the twentieth century as the Old West is fading into industry. Automobiles are noisily replacing horses, the flicker of the cinema is beginning to outshine the travelling Wild West shows, and the outlaws and law men of the old century are grown old, worn quiet and wise, and gone in search of absolution. Within this world Enger places his reader in the matter-of-fact company of Monte Becket, a husband, father, and writer, as he accompanies Glendon Dobie, an old train robber, on one last journey west to deliver an apology. Behind them, like a bloodhound, comes lawman Charlie Siringo, sniffing out their trail as it wends its way amongst a cast of characters scattered across the American west. Glendon, the gentle old trainrobber, wants only to make amends and pay his moral debts, while his foil, Siringo, is a man so bent on bringing him to justice for the crimes of decades past that he’s become the antithesis of grace itself.
The story unfolds in brief chapters, rarely more than a page or two, that provide tautly written vignettes of the characters as they make their way west. I’m always skeptical of stories that use a writer with writer’s block as a device, it’s been done too many times, but here it works, partly because it’s not the primary conflict of the book, and partly because Enger’s conversational narrator, Monte Becket, is a joy to listen to. I’m glad to have had the experience of watching him come into his own grace.
I don’t want to spoil the book but those looking for explicit Christian themes and a big emotional finale, as in Peace Like a River, might be disappointed. Those things are still here but they’re buried deeper, nestled down into the corners of the narrative like a prospector’s lode. It’s a story about grace and forgiveness and patience, how they change us, and how their lack corrupts us.
A big recommendation on this one. Leif Enger 2-0.