Is novelist Leif Enger trying single-handedly to resurrect the Great American Western? Readers may wonder, but he says no.
“I just wanted to write the story I want to write,” Enger explains from a hotel in Cambridge, Mass. “But it was one that had a hold on me throughout my childhood, when I used to read Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.”
“So Brave, Young, and Handsome” (Atlantic, $24), appears seven long years after Enger’s magnificent debut “Peace Like a River” and like “Peace,” it involves a thrilling journey into the heart of western mythology. Enger, who lives in Minnesota, worked for Minnesota Public Radio for 16 years and appears Wednesday at Books & Books in the Gables, re-creates the fading romance of the West in 1915, when struggling Midwestern author Monte Becket meets Glendon Hale. The retired outlaw dreams of finding the wife he abandoned when he went on the lam in Mexico decades earlier, and he teams up with Monte to track her. Along the way they cross paths with Charles Siringo, a crafty former Pinkerton agent with Terminator-like persistence, and Hood Roberts, a budding young outlaw who longs for the good old days and plans to sign on at the Hundred and One, an Oklahoma ranch that runs Western shows and is based on a real-life ranch.
Still, as much as Enger enjoys westerns—particularly the works of Charles Portis and Larry McMurtry—he doesn’t think his next book will be about cowboys or horses or lonesome journeys at all. But you never know where research will lead him. “Research is a loose term for me. It means whatever I’m interested in that day.” And then he’s off and galloping.
What appeals to you about Western mythology?
It’s the freedom, the sense that this was a place you could go to get a fresh start. In the early 1900s, if you were failing in your personal or professional life, you could get on a train and get a new name and a new history, and nobody knew who you were. Sometimes the past would catch up with you but not always. Nobody was watching. It’s so appealing, maybe even more so now, when we’ve got cameras on the freeways.
Why did you set “So Brave” at a time when the old West was dying?
The ends of eras are always more interesting than the midpoints. What we think of as the Wild West was dead by 1915. The real Hundred and One ranch did last until the mid ‘30s. ... The Hundred and One really defined what the West had been. It gave us Western mythology. Most of the early westerns were filmed there or in California by Hundred and One personnel. It was a terrific place—huge, involved with moviemaking and oil drilling and not immune from controversy. One act was called The Great Buffalo Shoot, and they brought in old Geronimo, who was retired from his raiding days, and he shot a buffalo from the seat of what they called a locomobile. They billed it as `Geronimo’s Last Buffalo.’ Nobody knew it was really his first buffalo because the Apache didn’t hunt buffalo.
How do you manage the expectations of readers—and for that matter, your expectations—when you’re writing a follow-up to a successful novel?
I think I managed it pretty badly! It took me all these years to produce another book. I was afraid of letting people down. I think it’s a matter of living enough years so you finally lose the fear of going out and falling on your face. “Peace Like a River” took up a lot more time after it was published than I expected. I had opportunities to go traveling and talk to people about it, talk to students and teach workshops. It was really fun but distracting in terms of my writing life. The first couple years I didn’t have time to think too hard about another book. Then I realized, `Wow, it might be more difficult this time because someone actually cares.’
How familiar to you was Monte’s battle to write a book after his early success?
Quite a bit, actually. I’m not going to be coy and say `It wasn’t me!’ In some sense it was, but here’s the thing: I had some of these characters in my mind for a long time. Glendon Hale I wanted to write about for the last 20 years, the aging outlaw looking for redemption in the modern age. ... I tried to write it as a straight-up western told by a Western voice, but I’m not a Western guy. I didn’t grow up in Texas or Oklahoma or Colorado. I needed a Midwestern voice, so why not give it to a guy who’s going through the same struggle I’m going through?
Do you think of yourself as an old-fashioned writer?
I guess I don’t, but I would take that as a compliment if what it means is there’s a natural courtesy to the language. A lot of people say they like my books because they can give them to their kids or their parents. I sort of shoot for that. I rarely read a book that I would give to everybody I know. I don’t want to write for a small sliver of clever people. Maybe my goal is to write for anyone who likes a good story. Or maybe I just want a wide audience!
Your brother Lin’s first novel comes out this July. Did you inspire him to try his hand at fiction?
He gave me the idea of writing fiction. He wrote short stories in college. His book is a retelling of “Hamlet” set in Minnesota. It’s very ambitious. My dad read his book, and he hadn’t seen or read “Hamlet” in 40 years, so he got a movie version of “Hamlet,” the Mel Gibson one, and he was a little nonplussed. He said, `I think Lin’s a little better than Shakespeare.’