Recently I learned that Larry Watson has written other books besides Montana 1948. I’m not sure why this surprised me, except perhaps is that when an author emerges, publishes one book, and then disappears, that one book is often something much like Montana 1948 – an elegantly written modern parable, the sort of story people have in mind when they say that “everyone has a story inside them.” When I discovered that Watson was not in fact a one-hit wonder, I reserved six of his other titles at the library. Since unfortunately he’s not as widely known as he should be, five of the six were available right away. I stacked them up, did a little thinking, then sat down with Laura.
The protagonist is Paul Finley, who wakes up in the middle of the night to find a young woman named Laura in his room. Laura is a guest of his parents’ and a celebrated young poet (you know, as far as any poets are ever “celebrated”). Laura is drunk, as 22 year-old poets often are, and she begins a rambling conversation with 11 year-old Paul in which she grills him about the articles in his Boy’s Life magazine, shares her fascination with baby snakes, and – oh yeah – also says, “My problem is very simple. It’s this: I came to Vermont to be alone with your father, and I can’t seem to manage this arrangement” (9).
This moment sets off Paul’s decades-long obsession with Laura, who seems to love torturing Paul for his Boy-Scout wholesomeness. On a bike ride, she suddenly veers off the road and down a steep gravelly embankment, where Paul falls and gets scraped up and is stunned when Laura doesn’t come back to find out if he is OK. This sensitivity – he’s almost a hypochondriac – persists throughout his youth and adulthood, and at every stage Laura tempts him to a point where he is damaged in some way – not by her, exactly, but because she leads him places where he’s not prepared to go – and then abandons him there.
Laura becomes the reason for Paul’s parents’ divorce, though both Laura and Paul’s mother, Doreen, insist for the rest of their lives that they are “friends.” Laura is the impetus for Paul’s first serious relationship in college: his girlfriend, Martha, is an aspiring poet who idolizes Laura, and Laura skewers Martha’s poetry, her confidence, and her relationship with Paul when Paul begs her to critique Martha’s work. Paul’s father dies young, and after the funeral Paul clings to Laura, who takes him for a ride in a borrowed MG and torments him because he had never asked his father personal questions and therefore had never learned that his father was a gifted storyteller with a rich history. When Laura falls asleep and Paul can’t resist touching her breast, she wakes up and says, “Why didn’t you say that was what you wanted, Paul? Why didn’t you just say that on the day of your father’s funeral you wanted to fuck a woman he fucked?” (158).
This is the sort of novel that makes me wonder if I would feel differently about the characters if their genders were reversed. A thirtysomething man taking a grief-stricken early-twentysomething woman for a drunken ride in a sports car – would I condemn that man as, if not a pedophile, than at least an opportunist and a lech? I think I would – but in some ways my feelings about Laura are even worse. I’m not proud of this, but I really do look down on women who don’t behave maternally toward younger people (correction: younger men; excuse me while I contemplate why I apparently think it’s perfectly OK for women to be manipulative and cruel to younger women – OK, I’m back, still a little confused). If Laura had had sex with Paul, certainly when he was eleven and probably also when he was in his teens and twenties, I would have mentally condemned her for it, but I’m not sure if my emotional reaction to the novel would be any different. The push-and-pull relationship she initiates with Paul and then sustains until both are in mid-life seems every bit as cruel, to me, as an inappropriate sexual relationship.
To sum up, gender relations are complicated. I have many feelings about male-female shenanigans that I haven’t fully investigated, and I imagine others may as well. But I did enjoy this book, which is beautifully written and just the right kind of heartbreaking.