So Brave, Young, and Handsome (No, this post is not about CAPC writers)

What would happen if you took a copy of Les Miserables and highlighted the bits about Jean Valjean, that illustration of grace and mercy, and Javert, relentless man of the law, and left out all that other stuff about student revolutions and orphaned waifs and the never-ending Battle of Waterloo? Okay, yeah, you would get The Fugitive. But add in trains, carnivals, cowboys, and the dying dream of the Old West, and you’ve got Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome, a distinctly American tale of redemption.

So what if the tale’s been told before? As Enger himself writes in his bestselling 2001 novel, Peace Like a River, repetition of a story doesn’t make it any less true or beautiful (I’m paraphrasing here).

So Brave, Young, and Handsome is set in 1915 and begins in Minnesota, but travels south and west from there. In this novel, the role of Valjean is played by Glendon Hale, a small, white-haired former outlaw, now a boat-builder with the chief ambition of finding the wife of his youth and apologizing for having abandoned her. Javert is a Pinkerton Detective named Charles Siringo, a ruthless tracker who relishes the book of Ecclesiastes but doesn’t have much use for Proverbs. Our narrator is Monte Becket, middle-aged writer who published a popular Western adventure novel five years before. He fears that he may be a one-hit-wonder, though, as none of his subsequent drafts have captured the spark of his first achievement. He longs to prove himself to his patient wife. Of course, by the end of Enger’s novel, he does. Enger is not a writer out to disappoint or shock the reader; you know where the story’s going, and you can relax in the author’s hands, enjoying the path to a satisfying destination.

You can tell a lot about Enger’s own reading taste from conversations he records in his books. For example, in So Brave, Young, and Handsome, police detective Royal Davies tells Becket, “You’re doing these youngsters no service . . . You authors, I mean—this world ain’t romance, in case you didn’t notice.”

“So I am discovering,” Becket replies in that scene, but as retrospective narrator, he continues to reflect, “It was, I suppose, the expected wry answer, and it made my host chuckle, but now I am taking it back. I take issue with Royal, much as I came to like him; violent and doomed as this world might be, a romance it certainly is.”

Becket clearly means romance here in the sense of adventure and derring-do, not just lovey-dovey stuff (though that’s often part of the adventures as well). Pardon the English teacher in me, but I also have to mention the literary genre of romance here, because I think it’s a genre in which Enger comfortably operates. As Becket’s and Enger’s 19th-century predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “When a writer calls his work a romance, he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a novel.” It’s not strict realism—and the supernatural is often involved—but Becket is claiming here that, in a way, romance is truer to life than stark realism (or the even starker naturalism that would have been popular in Becket’s youth). A romance will not necessarily have a happy ending, as anyone who’s read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter could tell you. But the ending will not be meaningless.

There’s a hilariously familiar scene in So Brave, Young, and Handsome, in which Becket continues to debate literary value with Royal Davies’s wife. Mrs. Davies asks Becket what he thinks of writer Boyd Singleton Ample, a famous contemporary who seems to operate in the realist (if not the naturalist) vein. Feeling like he ought to like Ample because he is a “very important writer,” Becket trots out phrases like “his insights on human miseries are salient” and “a broader understanding of human darkness.”

Again stepping into narrative retrospection, Becket explains that his attempted insight about Ample “didn’t seem like a weak limb to climb out on—it was a common opinion among people who were serious about Literature and the phase it was in, whether of ascent or decline, and What It All Meant for Society. In his [Ample’s] most recent novel he had sallied out with a number of momentous ideas, namely that war is difficult, and that poverty is difficult too; in fact, that much of human experience is marked by difficulty. I don’t remember who is at fault.”

To all of which Mrs. Davies responds: “Horse puckey.” (And this is about as coarse as the language in the novel gets, in case you’re curious.)

This isn’t to say that Enger ‘s writing doesn’t display a broad “understanding of human darkness” itself, but his novels go beyond Ample’s fatuous insights that life is hard. Life is hard, but there is blessing in it. As Becket says of outlaw Glendon Hale, “I could feel the draw of his silence, the draw of his naïve and weak-eyed quest for atonement; no doubt even his shifty past was a draw, for his life seemed a curving line, capricious, moment by moment inviting grace.”

For those who lament the absence of Christian literary fiction in the early 21st century, Leif Enger may provide what’s missing. He may not be literary enough for many litterateurs, and he may not be Christian enough for many Christians, but, in my opinion, that proves that he’s writing just as he should.

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  • It’s been a long time since high school (the last time I heard much talk about different kinds of literature—e.g. romantic, realist, magical realist, etc.). Maybe you could give some examples of different types of lit. Or maybe categorize these authors:

    • Raymond Chandler (American)
    • Haruki Murakami (Japanese)
    • Kazuo Ishiguro (British)
    • Harper Lee (American)
    • William Golding (British)
    • Kurt Vonnegut (American)

    From what I remember, Mary Shelly was a romantic and Thoreau was a, what, transcendentalist? Shoot, it’s been a long time.

    The Danes last blog post..20080606

  • Carissa Smith

    Whoa–you actually want me to get even more English-teachery?

    The nice thing about realism and romance is that they’re not styles that are limited to particular eras. There’s a Romantic period and there’s a Realist period, but romance and realism aren’t confined th those movements. Naturalism, however, the other literary movement I mentioned, is usually viewed as more period-specific. For naturalist writers, life is nasty, brutish, and short. We are determined by our genes and instincts. Nature is indifferent or harsh. Examples of naturalist writers would be Jack London, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris. (Women writers didn’t seem to get into the whole naturalism thing much.) Across the pond, I suppose D.H. Lawrence would fit the bill.

    That’s an interesting list you’ve compiled, and I’m not even going to try to classify most of those (things don’t fall always fall into neat categories, much as English teachers often wish they would–and the closer we get to our own era, the harder it is to put things in boxes). I’ll say that Vonnegut is usually classified as postmodern in style, but that’s as far as I’ll go.

  • Mink

    Fabulous little review – as unpretentious as Enger. You could make a good Minnesotan, Carissa. Off to the library!

  • I’m slated to read my first D.H. Lawrence this summer. I have a Murakami book, then a book of Alice Munro shorts, then Jaime Hernandez’s Locas, and then at last Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s all about.

    Incidentally, I think Enger’s book would have been more strikingly titled had it dropped the “and.”

    The Danes last blog post..20080610

  • Mink

    Shouldn’t the “incidentally” preface the first section of that post, Dane? *chuckle*

    I think the title needed the “and” to keep it predictable (in the positive sense Carissa described), and easy to remember and say. But the cover designer seems to have shared your opinion, tucking the “and” in between the big words like another cloud. Ahh, synthesis.

  • Go cover designers!

    p.s. Are you trying to say that Carissa was not writing an article about my reading habits?

    The Danes last blog post..20080610

  • Carissa Smith

    Oh, since I just commented on David’s post and discussed how violence against animals bothers me, I suppose I should mention that there is mink (yes, Mink) death in So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Poor mink. The rest of the book kept me from dwelling on it, though.

  • That reminds me of a film that minorly scarred me as a child. I don’t even know what it was called, but there was some frisky young otter or ferret or mink or something that spent the movie endearing itself to the audience. And then, at the end, BOOM! Some guy kills it with a shovel. I was horrified and the seen relived itself for some time in my dreams, both waking and sleeping. So much so that I occasionally became the otter/ferret/mink and met that grisly end myself.

    Hm, in truth, I don’t even know if the death scene was at the end. All I know is that for me, it was the end of the movie—there could be no life on the screen after that.

    I’m trying to remember where the film was from. I can’t, but I’m gonna say it was Welsh anyway. Just ‘cuz in my mind they’re all otter/ferret/mink-killers.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • No offense to your avatar intended, Carissa.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • Carissa Smith

    Ah, yes. You refer to Ring of Bright Water, and the animal involved is indeed an otter. Evil, evil movie. My parents bought it for me for my 12th birthday because otters are my favorite animal (and the catalog they bought it from gave no indication of the otter’s demise, and we didn’t have the internet in those days to warn us). Whoops. I think my poor, unsuspecting parents might still feel guilty for that one.

    As I recall (and I of course only saw the movie once), the farmer killed the otter because he thought it was a mink, and minks and farmers in Britain have a long-standing battle.

    There’s also this kind of similar (from what I hear), earlier British book called Tarka the Otter, from the period when people were starting to call attention to animal rights by depicting shocking cruelty to animals in order to wake readers up. I don’t think it’s a tactic that would fly as well these days, though (though I wouldn’t put it past PETA, whose ad campaigns are generally offensive and out of touch with reality).

  • Yeah, I actually discovered that it was Ring of Bright Water earlier last night. The first thing I found was Tarka the Otter. I kinda figured that it had to be what I saw—mostly because I couldn’t imagine there being two British movies (for kids!) featuring the brute deaths of protagonist otters.

    As an aside, one person I found writing about Tarka described it with the following: “By the end of the film, I wanted to keep it, pay the video store fee, and burn it so nobody else would have to see it. It’s that bad.” And: “Tarka the Otter should probably have been called Tarka Runs For His Life. Though nature is often cruel, this film takes cruelty to a new level.”

    Despite not being able to imagine there being another otter snuff film out there, I didn’t remember some of the scenes described (such as the protagonist dying in single combat with a dog), so I changed my Google terms from “otter killed movie” to “otter shovel.” Among the first results was an actual clip from Ring of Bright Water featuring the clip that traumatized me as a youth.

    And its not hard to see why. A woman and a puppy and the otter are each frolicking down a county road. The music is light and buoyant. They run into a friendly ditchdigger, with whom the woman shares some kind words, a pleasant Good Morning. The music continues happy as could be. Then the digger glimpses Mij the otter and within the span of two seconds has raised his hovel, face in an animal snarl, and brought it down again—to the horrified scream of the woman, “Angus!” To which Angus, in mild mea culpa form (still probably curious what exactly he did wrong), explains: “I thought it was just an otter!”


    Freakin’ Ring of Bright Water. You robbed me of my childhood, you G-rated movie, you!

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • Carissa Smith

    I just have to mention that, when I was in the Texas State History Museum last weekend, I discovered (completely by chance) that Charles Siringo is a real person, a former cowboy turned Pinkerton detective. Like the character in So Brave, Young, and Handsome, he wrote his own memoirs–and they are for sale on Amazon! Interesting choice on Enger’s part to base a fictional character on a real person.

    I also learned from Books and Culture’s book review of So Brave, Young, and Handsome that the title is indeed, as I suspected, from an old ballad. It’s called “The Cowboy’s Lament.” However, the review also called Enger’s novel “picaresque,” which is in my opinion inaccurate, so take that for what it’s worth.

  • Mink

    O English Teacher, is picaresque considered pejorative? or does it indicate a certain tone? I thought it was just plot/character descriptive, i.e. goofy guy goes through goofy adventures?

    Not that I may even read the book…I’m still a little worried about all this mustelid death…

  • trisha

    Just fyi, for those of you not familiar with Oklahoma, the 101 Ranch that the main characters in this winsome book visit is also historically accurate (along with Siringo and the lyrics which form the title). I think Enger spent those long years since Peace Like a River carefully researching this novel.
    Grace is everywhere in this novel, just never quite where you think it will be.