Due to unforeseen events, I ended up on my own for lunch on Tuesday, so I did what many downtown workers do. I found a book on the Bennett Martin Public Library new books display. I chose “American Boy” by Larry Watson because I’d so enjoyed his “Montana 1948” several years ago.
I started it over an Oso Burrito lunch, and was amazed when I’d reached page 40 with burrito remaining. I ditched many evening tasks to keep reading at home. I got up at 4:30 Wednesday morning and finished it off, all the way to the final paragraph on page 246. Thank you, Larry Watson, for writing a fairly short novel.
Matthew Garth narrates this story, which happens in Willow Falls, Minnesota, in 1963. Anyone who grew up in a small town will recognize Watson’s sense for the rhythms of small town life.
Matthew’s an only child, his father died when he was eight, and his mother waitresses in town. She takes a pretty hands-off approach to parenting. Matthew realizes that as long as he stays out of big trouble, she’s okay with it.
He has attached himself to his best friend’s family, and been taken in by the Dunbars. Dr. Dunbar has cachet–he’s a doctor, he’s from out of town, and he’s handsome. Matthew looks up to him, and pictures his own future in medicine because of him.
The equilibrium of the Dunbar home gets upset when Louisa Lindahl, a young woman who comes into Dr. Dunbar’s care when her boyfriend shoots her on Thanksgiving, moves into the Dunbar home. Matthew becomes obsessed with Louisa, and when he realizes that she doesn’t have her eyes on him, his own eyes are opened.
There are several aspects of “American Boy” that remind me of “Montana 1948.” They include a narrator looking back on his experience as a rough-edged young man, an experience that includes a degree of isolation, remarkable observational skills of how men behave, and how others, especially women, respond to them. In particular, there’s a sense of how men in power use or abuse their situation. There’s engagement with physical violence.
Watson tells the story in a chronological straightforward manner. I attribute some of the speed in my reading to his excellent writing–he gets out of the way. And yet he develops characters. He lets the story roll out at a pace that makes sense. He reveals depth in what could have been simply a tawdry story.
I’ll recommend this to readers who love fiction, who appreciate stories about America’s heartland, and to people who especially enjoy a coming-of-age story. This is a great book group choice–there’s plenty to discuss. I look forward to talking this over with others, and so am eager to get the word out about it.