Tuesday, July 24, 2012

American Boy by Larry Watson- Elemental mystery

American Boy by Larry Watson, August 2012, Milkweed Editions

Matthew Garth, the 17 year old narrator of AMERICAN BOY, is a hard-scrabble not quite hard-boiled boy in the early 1960’s in Willow Creek, an isolated town in Minnesota. Families here have known each other for generations and newcomers, like the charismatic Dr. Dunbar, are both admired and viewed with suspicion. Raised by a struggling widow, Matt’s from the “wrong side of the tracks,” grateful for his status, as an unofficial member of the Dunbar family. And like a Dreiser hero, he knows it’s strangely provisional. His friendship with Johnny Dunbar gives him access to the luxurious Victorian house, holiday parties, but most of all to the charismatic Dr. Dunbar.

When Matt’s father died, the pain of that event was muted by Dunbar, who credited him with enough intelligence to be able to understand the medical causes. Flattered that Dr. Dunbar encourages him, as a future physician, Matt considers his comfortable place as Johnny's “older bigger brother” essential to his happiness. While lifelong residents of Willow Creek, like his mother, don’t even allow themselves to hope for a better life, the Dunbars go to Minneapolis for concerts and good clothes. Matt wants thats wider world. Being included in this family, negates the drab reality of  life as the fatherless boy of a waitress.

The end of that charmed life begins with a chance event. An unconscious girl, Louisa Lindhal, is laid out in the doctor’s clinic. When the doctor lifts the sheet to show the boys the bullet wound that almost cost her life, Matt receives a fleeting but unforgettable glimpse of her breasts. His passion for Louisa is fanned by contradiction. She’s turned down very desirable boys, yet lived with a degenerate in a tar paper shack. The mysterious Louisa is beautiful but shabby, ignorant yet worldly wise. He's completely smitten, when she says the truth--both he and she are “strays” taken in by the Dunbars. 

The story accelerates as Matt, pursues Louisa and tries to figure out what’s going on in his world. Like most teens, his hypocrisy meter's on overtime and he suffers from Dr. Dunbar’s hostility, as the idol begins to crack. Matt also suffers from his mother’s depressive resignation and his own shortcomings. He hates how he manipulates Johnny to get close to Louisa. What he finally discovers about her ambitions, delivers him to his core. In this passionate very intelligent novel, the roles people play and what’s actually happening with them, is part of Matt's mystery. There’s also the sexual mystery of what women will and won’t do, and how that affects men. Matt experiences elemental forces in this novel. Nature mirrors human storms that threaten survival. Sanctuary, the family-human affection are but fragile constructs. And, in the end, he understands what's of value.

AMERICAN BOY seems oddly 1930’s in its noir-like soul. Early 60’s optimism, Vietnam or pot doesn’t touch this town. But perhaps that’s the point--this place is that insular. It’s a very small quibble. This is a heroic coming of age story. I was riveted by its layered mystery.