I was surprised to look my Yarn Along post from a few weeks ago and see that I used the word “enjoying” to describe my relationship with As Good as Gone. How much has changed. I’ll tell you a bit about the plot and characters and then describe the general souring of my opinion toward what was at first a very palatable novel.
The central premise of this novel is that Bill Sidey and his wife Marjorie have to leave their home in Gladstone, Montana for a week so Marjorie can get an elective hysterectomy at a hospital in Missoula. Against Marjorie’s wishes, Bill arranges for his estranged father, Calvin, to stay in their home and care for their children, Ann and Will. Calvin was once a respected real estate agent in Gladstone, but he left when Bill was a teenager and hasn’t been seen in town since. Shortly before he left, Calvin’s wife Pauline traveled home to France to visit her family and was killed in a car accident there, and the rumor mill in Gladstone suggests that in his rage and grief over the loss of his wife, Calvin killed a man. Ever since he left, he has worked as a ranch hand and cowboy-for-hire and lived in a Spartan trailer in the wilderness.
This novel is written in a shifting point of view, with each chapter told by a new character. In other words, it’s a gigantic 21st-century literary cliché. In the 20th century, shifting points of view was a sophisticated technique practiced by the likes of Faulkner and Joyce; nowadays it’s the go-to approach for anyone aspiring to the “From our Library to Yours” shelf at Target. (Full disclosure: I’ve done it too. I’m currently revising one novel that uses shifting points of view and drafting another. Given my current mood, that may change.) The point-of-view characters include all four members of Bill Sidey’s nuclear family, plus Calvin and a neighbor named Beverly Lodge, who is sort of like Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched if Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched ever took off all her clothes and hid in Samantha’s father’s bed on one of his occasional visits. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Of course everyone in the family has secrets from one another. Ann – known by everyone in town as a paragon of responsibility because she attends school while also holding down a job at J.C. Penney’s – has a boyfriend who scares her; the first time we see her she is running for her life, cutting through backyards in the predawn hours to evade him in his truck. Will is besieged by his friends, who are desperate for him to rig some kind of defective-curtain scenario so they can spy on Ann getting dressed. Neither Bill nor Marjorie can stop thinking about Marjorie’s own bad-boy high school romance, a boy who died young – Marjorie with longing and Bill with competitiveness and insecurity.
Ultimately what this book wants to be is a dissertation on the Cowboy Code. Calvin Sidey is a sort of Clint Eastwood-shaped cardboard cutout who inspires awe, fear, and puzzlement – and, in Beverly’s case, lust – in the people he meets. Early in the novel, he downplays the romance of the cowboy life, telling Will that he’s dug more post holes than he’s roped steers, but his actions come straight out of central casting. Once this novel’s exposition is complete (and in a not-so-well-done novel with multiple points of view, exposition takes forever), the plot seems to consist entirely of Calvin stalking out of rooms and then driving somewhere to (your choice) threaten people, beat people with hacked-off garden hoses, or get in fistfights in alleys carpeted in broken glass.
The problem is that if an author is going to write in multiple points of view, he has to actually write in multiple points of view. He has to let his characters be complex. Every character in this novel is flat. They all think about only one thing. We spend at least a quarter of the novel in Calvin Sidey’s head, but we never understand why he agreed to come back to Gladstone to take care of his grandchildren, nor do we ever enter his feelings in an authentic way – and don’t get me started on the fact that reading Catullus in the original Latin is supposed to be very meaningful and therapeutic for him. Larry Watson could have written a great novel from Calvin’s point of view (probably in first person; I am coming to understand that Watson does his best writing in first person), and I wouldn’t write off the possibility that he might have been able to write it from another character’s point of view – Ann’s, for example, or Beverly’s.
The old me would add at least a thousand more words to this review. I would tell you that Will is a caricature, that none of the backstory on Marjorie’s relationship with her sister is necessary, and that Beverly Lodge would never in a million years have used the word “prose” – and I would be right. The old me would go on and on about the improbable sex between Beverly and Calvin – and maybe the future me will do that sort of thing too. But I’m going to end this review here. This is a disappointing novel, but I haven’t lost respect for Larry Watson, an author I admire. I will continue to read his work, but I hope he returns to the complicate psychological character studies that he really is quite good at.