So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Got a nice selection of items from the Amazon Vine program this month. One I especially want to feature here. The novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Lief Enger. Here’s my review:

“I said, ‘Most men never have the chance to be both things at once, the hero and the devil.’

‘That is ignorant. Most men are hero and devil. All men. That is what ruins it with wives.’

‘She wanted just the hero?’

‘Bad men or good she would’ve had me either way. She couldn’t endure both, however. She said to pick one and to be that thing only so that she might trust me until the day of Jesus.'”

There is a perspective in some ancient cultures about in-between places and times. Dawn and dusk, which lie between night and day. The seashore, that lies between water and land. Halloween, that time in which the spirit world and the physical world are perilously close. During these moments, in these places, it is both and neither all at once, indistinct and undefined. So too human life encounters these moments in identity. People are often caught in this nebulous middle, seeming one thing and another all at once. Sometimes this is being caught between their actions and their ideals, or their sin and their virtue. They are half-people of a sort, unrealized and unformed, without an identity of their own.

Some stay in this place their whole lives, never becoming, and never discovering themselves for who they really are. Others cast off from the dock, refusing to settle any longer for what was, and yet not yet knowing who they can or should be. It is a journey of becoming a whole person.

So Brave, Young, and HandsomeSo Brave, Young, and Handsome is this story told of three primary characters, with a few others thrown in along the way. It is a road story telling of a physical journey that brings out the metaphysical of each of the characters, but not in a mushy, spiritualistic, heavy-laden way. And that’s what is so brilliant about the book. It’s not philosophy. It’s a great tale in the tradition of great American writers from decades past.

This is a book about in between times and in between people drawn with immense clarity and insight, while retaining a direct and sparse prose. Enger tells us of an era and certain characters, a story not a message. It is in this story, however, that we see so much of real life as it so often is: in between.

We are between the old and the new, the good and the bad, the honest and the false, the artist and the laborer, the young and the aged, the adventurous an the prosaic. The characters hope, but don’t know how to find this hope. What they do is carry on, having tasted something of who they know themselves to be they won’t let themselves go back. As Enger says in his acknowledgments, “Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic.”

What I like so much about Enger’s work is that it is so hopeful. Absolutely honest, mind you, there’s no false hope to be found here or sentimentalism seeking to manipulate our emotions. These are real people, faults and all. But unlike so much contemporary literature and film Enger doesn’t feel a need to obsess with corruption or ruin. His is a book that shows people who are not handsome, or young, and rarely brave. But they want to be, and be such in ways that matter to them, not to others around them. They are seeking wholeness for themselves.

Not all succeed. Some do, but not in the expected ways.

“For at the same time he lost everything–the very direction of his own steps–he won the thing he held so precious he wouldn’t approach it in words.”

It is a story of real life. Not gritty, corrupted, malformed caricatures. Real people, or at least characters who are desperate to become real people, who learn what it is to be a real person.

With all this depth and insight it might sound ponderous. But it’s not. It’s very gentle and easy-going. It moves along at a varied pace, with enough movement to never seem tiresome and enough twists to never seem predictable. My only slight irritation is that sometimes Enger jumps ahead a bit and is so eager to bring a slight twist that he breaks the moment with unnecessary foreshadowing, sort of a “you’ll love what comes next!” moments. I wish he just let us experience the story as it happened a bit more. But this is a minor qualm and he does even this within the contexts of a fitting narration.

It’s a brilliant book, in craft and theme and insight. It’s the best work of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a very long time and guess it will be my favorite book of 2008.

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