Yesterday I reviewed Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, my theme being my love for dark, conflicted fiction. Today I’m going to explore another possibly bleak novel, Let Him Go by Larry Watson, published in September.
Set in the 50s in the American West, Let Him Go concerns the journey of George and Margaret Blackledge from North Dakota, through the Badlands, to Montana. They have packed their Hudson full of clothes, bedding, pots and pans, anything and everything they can imagine needing as they seek to reconnect with Jimmy, only child of their deceased son James. This is no casual trip, since they dislike daughter-in-law Lorna’s hasty choice of a new husband, Donnie Weboy, a handsome ne’er do well, who has moved them back to the family enclave in Gladstone, Montana.
I was particularly struck by Watson’s style–spare, the way the West is spare. He even sheds quotation marks from dialogue. George and Margaret survey Gladstone from a plateau:
From the bluffs east of the city, Gladstone, Montana, looks as though it could have been laid out by a shotgun blast, the commercial and residential districts a tight cluster in the center and then the buckshot dispersing in the looser pattern of outlying houses and businesses owned by those Montanans for whom space is a stronger article of faith than neighborliness. And farther from the heart of town trees are sparser until, beyond the city limits, nothing grows higher than a tall man’s knees… (53)
Watson’s use of plain language, of images common to the West, makes the town easy to visualize, but is slyly suggestive. Notice the comparison of the townscape to a shotgun blast and to the spreading effect of buckshot (the larger, more deadly form of shot, not birdshot), the suggestion than this is a place where neighborliness takes a backseat. And this place, another kind of Badlands, is where outsiders George and Margaret have come.
Fitting such a plain-spoken book are its characters. George Blackledge, a former sheriff, and his wife Margaret wear a tough hide, though Margaret’s tenderness is betrayed by a trembling of her chin. She has never gotten over the freak riding accident that killed her son and has poured all her extra love into his son, Jimmy. But to me the character most compelling is Margaret’s antagonist, the widow Blanche Weboy. Nothing about her is what it seems: she demands a please-and-thank you, she is always smiling and voluble about her church attendance, she is little taller than a child, but seductively attractive with her curvy figure, pale skin, long black hair, and “wide slash of a mouth … brightly lined in scarlet “(101). Blanche is not a typical ranch wife. Indeed, there is no ranching going on at the Weboys, although there are a suspicious number of cars being disassembled for parts. But Blanche doesn’t need to worry—the sheriff is her former lover.
What should be a simple family dinner when the Blackledges drive out to the Weboy place to visit Jimmy becomes the staging ground for a family feud. They discover that Lorna and their grandson had been in town all afternoon. Blanche pretends to be insulted that the true reason for their visit wasn’t to eat her overcooked pork chops. And shortly after Jimmy returns home, he is whisked off to bed with only a brief hug allowed from his grandmother. It isn’t that Blanche cares particularly for Jimmy, but that Margaret and George’s desire to take him home reads as an insult to her favorite son. Blanche says, You’re not so different from me, and she’s not entirely wrong: two mothers, two favorite sons, one grandson. And we all know how mother bears react to threats to their cubs. This short intense book builds to an explosive ending.
I recommend this novel for its clean prose, starkly beautiful setting, and unforgettable characters. Darkness does not block out the light of Margaret’s love for her grandson or George’s love for her. He gives his all so that they can be reunited. As with Burial Rites, this story does not leave you depressed; it lifts you up.
How do you feel about “dark” novels? Any suggestions for further reading?