I read Leif Enger's new novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, this week. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I had hoped to. That's probably not fair, but you see I loved Peace Like a River so much and was really looking forward to this novel. Of course, even a somewhat disappointing effort by Enger is still many times better than my best effort, so this is all relative. Still, here goes:
The narrator of the story, Monte Becket, is a writer in Minnesota in 1915. He's written one bestseller and has spent the five years since writing and discarding seven tries at another novel. He's getting pretty discouraged and it comes as no surprise when he agrees to accompany a vagabond named Glendon Hale on a quest to find Hale's long-lost love. The journey takes them through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico -- all the way to California. Along the way they encounter some colorful characters, including a former Pinkerton's agent who wants to arrest Hale for an old crime. Before the end, both Monte and Hale will change, and lots of things happen.
The journey is significant in the story's development, but it also suffers from the problem shared by a lot of road stories -- it becomes a little disjointed, a series of incidents in each successive location. This is hardly a fatal flaw, but at times I found myself peeking ahead, which is not usually a good sign with me. It means I'm getting a little bored.
I think the main problem for me, the reason I feel a bit disappointed, is that the narrator never quite engaged me. Monte is certainly involved in the story, but his voice comes across somewhat detached. I don't know how it could be fixed, but at the most exciting moments of crisis the narrator's tone seems to fall a little short. The result was a story that could be put down and taken up again another day. (When I'm really engaged in a story, I can't put it down.) I'm not sure I was completely pulled into the world of the story.
I don't want to be completely negative about this book because it is a well-written story. Enger has a wonderful vocabulary and he sets the scenes well. Monte sounds like a (fairly well educated) person of his era. Enger gives a good sense of a time when the old West was fading, but still visible in places. The plot takes some unexpected turns -- one good thing about a road story (anything can happen on the road). I liked the ending, which is more satisfying as I reflect on it than it felt when I was reading it.
Like I said, I enjoyed the book and I would recommend it, especially if you enjoy Enger's style of writing. It's an entertaining tale with some meat to it. It's just not Peace Like a River. But then, why should it be?