Tuesday, July 5, 2016

AS GOOD AS GONE :: Larry Watson

"Does destruction give you pleasure?"

I've been in love with Larry Watson's writing since I read Montana 1948 in 1993 (highly recommend it), and jumped at the chance to read his newest offering, As Good as Gone. Watson reminds me a bit of Kent Haruf with more of an edge - he's a master at relationships and small town atmosphere, and he brings a tension (and sometimes violence) to them that always feels appropriate to character and place, never just for the sake of it.

Calvin Sidey left Gladstone, Montana under a cloud of suspicion when his children were young, abandoning his family and responsibilities as a real estate broker to work as a cowboy. In 1963, Calvin is in his 70s and still mostly estranged from his children, living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere ("He lives here, Bill thinks, so he can see the enemy approach.").

Calvin receives a visit from his son, Bill, who needs a favor. Bill and his wife are traveling to Missoula for Marjorie to have an operation and they need Calvin to stay with their kids for a few days. Ann is 17, Will 11, so Calvin really only needs to watch the house and be around if someone needs him. Things that, historically, Calvin hasn't been so good at.

Bill believes Calvin deserves a chance despite his history and Marjorie's protestations ("Why would we leave Ann and Will in the care of a man who might walk off?"), and to his surprise, Calvin agrees to stay at the family home.

Unbeknownst for the most part to Bill, he's leaving Calvin with more to deal with than keeping a simple eye on his household. Ann is having trouble with a young man in town, and Will's friends are saying and doing things that make him yearn to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and run away to be a cowboy. Add to the mix an interesting widow next door and some angry folks Bill is trying to evict from one of his rental homes, and Calvin is getting more than he bargained for, with little experience and a short fuse under his belt.

Watson is one of those writers who can use a line or two to say what it might take another a paragraph or more. He is able to render Calvin Sidey so fully and perfectly you can envision him standing in front of you (me? Sam Elliott crossed with Samuel Beckett): "A hawk with prey in sight could not watch more intently."

While Calvin is larger than life and dominates the page, Watson has written a multi-POV novel that doesn't falter from any individual perspective. The reader can only sit and wait while Ann and Will face ever-growing threats, Bill and Marjorie face serious medical issues in Missoula, and neighbor Beverly worries about them all as she tries to dig beneath Calvin's hardpan exterior. It almost feels like an unfair experiment to throw old-school Calvin into troubles he's been trying to avoid for decades, but boy am I glad Watson put him through it.

STREET SENSE: A beautifully written tale of family history, the power of grief, the ties that bind and the responsibility that comes with them, Watson's latest is a gem of a novel. You'll want to wrap your arms around Calvin Sidey at the same time you want to knock him upside the head, but he's a character that you won't soon forget.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: The long and short of it:

He begins to speak but seems uncertain about the decision, as if speech's victory over silence has been won by the narrowest of margins.

Calvin can still remember the first day when he didn't think of his dead wife...But when the memory of her came back to him in his exhaustion--and hadn't he taken on the cowboy life so its long days and man-killing work hours would keep him from dwelling on grief and loss?--it came with renewed force, as if his grief had hidden from him all day in order to gather its power and devastate him all over again. Better, Calvin realized, and he has lived by this principle ever since, to keep some thought of Pauline Sidey always near at hand and thus prevent the familiar daily sorrow from gathering its strength and growing into ruinous pain.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I love this cover, but that's about as subjective an opinion as you can get. It's quite subdued. But the image is a beautiful one, and it highlights the vastness of Montana, the potential for a storm brewing, and the movement of the truck through and potentially out of both of them. I'm very glad the font is a simple one, anything fancy wouldn't be true to the image or the novel.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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