Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not the Thanksgiving Story You Expected--A Discussion of Larry Watson's American Boy

I keep telling myself that I can skip one post a month. I thought that no post on Thanksgiving would be an appropriate gesture. But then I read a novel that started on the storied holiday, and that inspired me that today would be the perfect day to write about Larry Watson's American Boy. And then I thought, well what if I write about a Thanksgiving novel on the Tuesday before?

The story begins in the southwest corner of Willow Falls, Minnesota, 1962. Matthew Garth's mother works as a waitress at Palmer's Supper Club. His dad is gone, not that his being there would have changed the family's situation; by now, the struggling screen door plant would have probably laid him off.

He has a surrogate family of sorts. His friend Johnny is the son of the town doctor, and Dr. Dunbar has high hopes for his son to follow him into the field of medicine; Matt has sort of come along for the ride. He clearly looks up to Dr. Dunbar, who has in many ways come to treat him like his own son. But their are limits to that love, as Matt learns during a particularly rough hockey game.

So back to that Thanksgiving dinner. In the midst of the meal, there is bad news. A young woman has been shot by her boyfriend; she turns out to be the soda jerk  at the pharmacy in town, and her life is clearly hardscrabble-y. Matthew And with a new reversal in circumstances, the Dunbars take the young woman in to be the doctor's assistant. So now, Matt has too things to obsess over--the Dunbars and young Louisa Lindahl.

A triangle of sorts begins to develop, but things don't always go where you expect, despite a sort of fated quality of the whole thing. Like all of Mr. Watson's work, the writing is spare and elegant, Shaker furniture-esque. If you've only read Montana 1948 (and between the book's likestanding populartity and the Shorewood Reads program, it seems as if everyone has in fact read this now classic novel), you might think that Watson's voice is always that of a male teenager. I assure you that is not the case. But if you did like the voice of Montana 1948, this is not that far afield.

I had a very good talk with Carl, who had a handle on the details, being that he read it twice, and I'll probably ask a few questions of Beverly, who has picked the book as one of her holiday recommendations. What exactly did Dr. Dunbar think of Matt anyway? Carl noted that he sometimes seemed to think of him as more of a son than his own son Johnny. And yet their conflicts seemed to almost be a proctection response of the doctor to his biological son. I wrote more but I thought it gave away too much of the plot.

The title of the novel is apt; the story really is about adolescent versus adult urges and how we respond to them differently and how they play out, based on how old you area and where your place in society is. For this is surely a novel about haves and have nots. The question is whether Matthew can transcend all the roadblocks that stand in his way to breaking the class barrier. For those who read the end of novels first or somewhere in the middle (and I know you're out there), Mr. Watson is on to you and doesn't really give too much away in the coda.

This has been the fall of partly read books. American Boy was one of those titles where I got partly through and moved onto something else. Oh, how I hate when this happens, but the bookstore gets in the way. And when I have two recs from booksellers, I tend to gravitate towards the orphans that didn't get any recs at all. It's my responsibility to care for the less fortunate books, but just like Dr. Dunbar, I can't take care of everybody, and some would say, just like Dr. Dunbar, my universal concern belies an underlying selfishness. I'll leave someone else to sort that out.

But sometimes I get back on track and finish what I started. To get in the spirit of the holiday, I'm thankful for that. But isn't that really a lot of what Watson's novel is about? It's the fateful things that determine our life path, the people that help along the way, or don't, and the gifts they give. I suspected that Matthew, despite his tortured relationship with Dr. Dunbar, did wind up becoming a doctor, and probably would not have if this chain of events hadn't happened.

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