Ernest Hemingway famously remarked that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," and while such a broad declaration might be worthy of challenge, it nonetheless struck me as apt while I was reading Leif Enger's entertaining second novel, which follows his best-selling 2001 debut, <i>Peace Like a River</i>. Like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome involves a quintessentially American journey. It is a picaresque tale of adventure, happenstance and even danger, buoyed by a kind of cockeyed idealism. Yet for all of its surface artlessness, it has darkness at its core.
It is no accident that So Brave, Young, and Handsome is set in 1915, just before the world wars and other events of the "American Century" that would forever shift our country's self-perception from one of circumscribed continental destiny to global power. This was a time when horses still outnumbered cars, and telegraph wires often provided the only tenuous link westward. The central characters are outlaws and drifters, and the novel's episodic cliffhanger structure borrows its conceits from pulp westerns and other types of dime novel adventures. Indeed, Enger's narrator, Monte Becket, is a writer of such tales. Or rather, tale, for having produced one surprisingly successful book, Becket has been unable to write another no matter how diligently he turns out his 1,000 words a day.
So when a mysterious stranger shows up on the shore of the river that runs past the Becket's Minnesota farm, offering the promise of a world beyond, Monte jumps at the chance for a little adventure. Glendon Hale is a mythic figure, arriving in a little white dory, rowing while standing tall in the boat. He first charms Monte's son, Redstart, with tales of past exploits on the frontier, and the boy is convinced that Glendon was once a Pinkerton man. Monte soon learns the truth aboutGlendon - not in fact a pursuer of bandits but a train robber himself - but he finds his new acquaintance disarming and quite amiable. When he hears that the older man is headed to Mexico in search of Blue, the wife he was forced to desert 20 years before, he accepts an invitation to go along. With the blessing of his sensible wife, Susannah, Monte embarks on what should be a six-week excursion.
Things first go wrong around Kansas City, when a police officer on the train recognizes Glendon. The old outlaw manages to slip away (a special talent he will utilize at just the right moments throughout the book), but the less wily Monte is taken into unofficial custody. Once reunited, the two head south, a teenage mechanic named Hood Roberts in tow, and end up at an Oklahoma ranch inhabited by circus animals and Wild West acts. En route the three realize they are being pursued by a sinewy old man called Charlie Siringo, an erstwhile Pinkerton agent who is determined to track down his old nemesis, Glendon Hale, nee Dobie.
As the novel unfolds with a series of delicious coincidences, Hood will fall for a Mexican girl, accidentally kill a man and end up on the run. Glendon will again elude Siringo. And in an unlikely turn of events, Monte will find himself detainee-cum-traveling-companion of the irascible old man. Though Siringo is markedly rigid in his opinions about walking the straight and narrow, he is an unrepentant liar when it comes to weaving his own legend. In spite of himself, Monte can't help but find some truth in the old man's pronouncements, and his attempts to escape will prove half-hearted at best.
Enger, writing through Monte, employs a matter-of-fact, one might even say homespun, voice to charming effect. But while the narrative brims with a certain "cowboy" folk wisdom, it is often slyly ironic in its portrayal of good and evil. In his acknowledgements at the end of the book, Enger writes, "Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic," and this certainly could be Monte's motto as he stumbles through his adventure. The chief irony, of course, is that Monte finds it easier to live a daring adventure than to weave a fictional one out of whole cloth. And what writer out there, published or aspiring, can't relate to that?