LET'S GET this right out of the way: Leif Enger, the author of "Peace Like a River," a wildly successful debut novel, took seven years to write his second book. About what? Monte Becket, the author of a wildly successful debut novel who can't -- not yet, anyway -- write his next one. Monte lives in Minnesota with his wife, as does Enger. They both quit their day jobs to write full time. And although Monte's filled with self-doubt about whether he's a writer at all, Enger can relax. "So Brave, Young, and Handsome" is a sharp and brainy redemption tale, with all the twists and turns and thrills of a dime-store western.
It's 1915 and Monte's on the front porch of his Minnesota farmhouse, "composing the flaccid middle" of his seventh shot at a followup. He's promised his wife and his agent 1,000 words a day and he's delivering quantity, if not quality. Then Glendon Hale rows by, heading tipsily upstream on the Cannon River. Intrigued, Monte's son tracks Glendon down and brings him home to breakfast. The men become friends and spend some time building boats together. Soon, Glendon's off on a quest out West to track down and apologize to the wife he abandoned years before. Monte, who was on the verge of going back to his dull job at the post office, packs up his gear and, with his wife's blessing, joins Glendon on the quixotic journey.
The traveling companions board the Great Northern Railway, and Glendon's outlaw past is there to greet them. He's recognized by a porter on the train and hints of some past bad behavior -- murder, maybe; robbery, certainly -- creep into the road trip. Not for the last time in the story, Glendon vanishes. Stolid and slow-moving Monte winds up in the company of the policeman now on Glendon's tail.
Monte's seated on a river dock later that night, just hours away from returning home, when he hears the splash of oars and Glendon, standing up, comes rowing by. It takes about two seconds for Monte to decide to skip out on the policeman -- and the imminent return to his old life. Just like that, he's on the lam.
"In this way I crossed over. In this way I slid apart from all that was easy and comfortable and lawful; and so tired was my bandit friend that I took the oars myself and rowed facing forward." Enger's tone is so formal and the language so lovely that, despite Glendon's emerging dark side, this seems the start of a languid journey. But then the first bunch of bad guys ("one shirtless looking wild as Lear with his hair lashing his chest") attack our heroes' boat from their makeshift raft and we're jolted from the serene and dumped hip-deep into a rip-snorting action scene.
"The bristly man clutched the gunwale and the johnboat heeled so that Glendon sprawled on the bottom. This brought cheers from the raft, then more as the bristly man got a leg over the rail -- his face was chaos: mucky nostrils, warped lip."
Those four words, "his face was chaos," hang over the battle scene and wring a measure of respect for our bumbling -- a loser, let's face it -- narrator. Enger earns a measure of trust, too, as this odd little adventure moves on. The boat gives way to a car, a temperamental Packard, and the road leads across the dry and dusty prairie. ("What can be said for Kansas? Plain describes it nicely, both as grassy tableland and unadorned prospect. It's wide and there you have it.") As Monte and Glendon head for the Hundred and One Ranch, home of a fabled Wild West show, they're tailed by Charles Siringo, the real-life ex-Pinkerton detective. Monte's using an alias, reveling in how it sets him free, until he gets a glimpse of himself in a cafe window.
"Oh, it was the old Monte in that glass. It was who I had been before I left Northfield; who I would be again when I returned. As we waited a kind of illness entered my limbs and guts. The window both reflected me and rendered me transparent. My clothes and skin rippled like the surface of water."
Monte, Glendon and Charles part ways and cross paths as the journey heads ever westward. It's in California, at the home of Blue, Glendon's abandoned wife, that relationships come to a head. Monte's wife and son join him, and there, in the mythic California countryside, he finds out whether he has, indeed, disappeared. It wouldn't be fair to tell, and what happens to Glendon and Blue is more surprising still.
Enger's managed an elusive feat. This book is different enough from "Peace Like a River" to dispel all thoughts of beginner's luck. Yet it's similar enough in theme and tone -- a gently heightened Western realism -- that he's laid claim to a musical, sometimes magical and deeply satisfying kind of storytelling. *
Veronique de Turenne blogs at latimes.com/LAnow
and at www.laobserved.com/malibu/.