On a shelf above the neatly made bed is a short row of books, and though Bill can’t see the titles, he doesn’t have to. These are his father’s copies of Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid, Cicero, Catullus, and Pliny.”–Larry Watson’s As Good As Gone
Set in Montana in 1963, this engrossing novel about a middle-class family in the small town of Gladstone, Montana, will knock Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone right out of your mythology. Watson examines the eruption of violence in a small town: how do you protect your family? What happens if you ignore it? The Sideys are middle-class and comfortable, but macho jerks (of all classes), the deserving poor, the undeserving poor, and the ignorant also reside in Gladstone. If this were the twenty-first century, there would be meth. As it’s not, there are allusions to Shane, the classic Western.
Bill Sidey, a realtor and family man, hates his father, Calvin. During a family emergency, he visits Calvin’s trailer to ask a favor. We understand Bill’s resentment when we learn the family history: Calvin, once a successful realtor, deserted Bill and his sister after his beloved wife died on a trip to France, and has since worked as a cowboy, replacing fence posts more often than lassoing cattle. (Being a cowboy is not romantic.) Sidey lives in a tiny trailer with no electricity. Bill is stifled not just by the heat, but by his father’s Latin books, indecipherable to him. Bill asks Calvin to look after the children, Ann and Will, while he takes his wife Marge to Missoula to have an elective hysterectomy. Calvin agrees, but adds that the hysterectomy is probably unnecessary, which further alienates Bill, because he actually thinks the same thing. And so the father-son relationship is established.
Watson’s simple, direct prose is very effective. Each chiseled short sentence, written in the present tense, builds carefully one on another, so that the tension builds and no detail is extraneous. The fast-paced story powerfully reveals the intricacies of each character. For instance, Calvin’s scrutiny of why he agreed to look after his grandchildren gives him both a stolidity we didn’t suspect and a sense of irony.
Calvin watches his son drive away. He wonders why he said yes to his son’s request, which, he can’t help noticing, was offered without a please and accepted without a thank-you. Hadn’t he banished long ago any feelings of obligation to others? Did he say yes simply because of blood? Could he have said no to anyone but his son? Or is this solitary life less endurable than he believes? Maybe he would have listened to any request that tried to bring him back inside the human circle. Well, no point in speculating. He said yes.
Calvin is no Western cowboy, though there are many allusions to the classic Western, Shane: he is the product of class and civilization, gone rogue. His Roman literature represents a complex civilization not translatable to his son. He recklessly opted out of American culture and civilization after his wife’s death, and he thought he had dropped the Roman notion of pietas ( obligations to the gods, one’s country, and family). No, he does not read Virgil’s epic about pius Aeneas: he reads Catullus’ often flippant lyric poetry instead, charming love poems, bitter denunciations of girlfriends who reject him, elegies to his dead brother and his girlfriend’s dead pet sparrow, and often obscene invectives against Caesar and other characters, some historical, some not.
One could say that Calvin becomes a Catullan cowboy while Bill and Marge are away. After a dog scatters garbage all over the lawn and Calvin confronts the dog’s owner, he and the next-door neighbor, Beverly, become friends (and soon lovers). And Calvin observes problematic details about his grandchildren that mild Bill and self-centered Marge had ignored. Seventeen-year-old Ann, who is working at J. C. Penney, is strangely jumpy about a car that keeps circling the house. An ex-boyfriend is stalking and terrorizing Ann. And 11-year-old Will, who is hanging out with a couple of very tough boys , frantically tries to protect his sister from their plan to spy on her at night and see her naked.
When Calvin learns the truth about Ann’s ex-, he meets violence with violence. This is family; this is blood. He can deal with Ann’s rich ex-boyfriend with a show of toughness rather than a fight, but later he is out of his league. After an American Indian ex-felon shows up at the house and threatens Beverly (whom he mistakes for Marge Sidey) because his girlfriend has received an eviction notice from Bill Sidey, Calvin, to protect his son’s interest, goes looking for him. Beverly does what she can to put the brakes on Calvin, but he goes way, way too far in this battle.
Still, Calvin’s head-on approach is not for nothing: both Ann and Will are grateful . Their parents’ ignorance of the violence in Gladstone and their failure to teach them how to report it or fight it had somehow kept the children from either talk or action. We don’t completely lose sympathy for Calvin, but there is too much violence. Through a misunderstanding, he shows Will how to defend himself. At the same time, this protects Will from committing violence (and from getting in a great deal of trouble).
Meanwhile, Beverly’s son, an unemployed teacher, lives in her basement and is writing a Western. Will reads a page and recognizes a line from Shane.
So who is Shane? Calvin, though he’s rather too old?
And I must admit, I have never seen the movie Shane. I had to read about it at Wikipedia!
I did very much enjoy this western-anti-western. It’s fascinating, well-written, and about going too far. Hubris can be self-destructive.