Review: As Good As Gone, by Larry Watson
Algonquin, 2016. 341 pp. $27
To an outsider, it might seem as if little of the 1960s have touched Gladstone, Montana. But to Calvin Sidey, an aging, tough-minded cowboy who withdrew from the town years ago to live alone on its outskirts, the world of 1963 has taken over. Even on a brief drive through, he recognizes few landmarks, and mentioning the names of people he once knew raises puzzled looks or brings the news that this one has died, while the other lives in a nursing home.
Calvin wouldn’t have ventured into Gladstone at all, if his estranged son, Bill, hadn’t asked him to watch over the grandkids while Bill and his wife, Marjorie, go to Missoula so that she can have an operation. Nobody likes this arrangement. Bill resents Calvin for abandoning him and his sister after their mother died; Marjorie doesn’t trust Calvin to fulfill his responsibilities; and Calvin would rather bite the head off a rattlesnake than stay in Gladstone or, worse, have to talk to his son. Then again, Calvin hates talking to anybody.
Naturally, plenty will happen during Bill and Marjorie’s absence, putting Calvin and everyone around him under pressure. As Good As Gone would have been better had much less happened, but I like Watson’s premise, which gives his protagonist plenty of scope. I also believe the look and feel of Gladstone, from the dive bars to the stores, the weather, the cooking, the small-town atmosphere, and the social attitudes, the latter rendered with a light touch. The characters sense that they should be more tolerant, but they can’t bring themselves to act that way, and whatever’s happening in the world–civil rights marches, protests–is all Out There someplace, lurking on the edge of consciousness.
While Bill and Marjorie are away, Calvin charges at conflicts rather than step aside, because that’s who he is. When a neighbor’s dog gets into the garbage cans and strews litter all over–a chronic problem, he hears–Calvin tells the neighbor that if it happens again, he’ll shoot the dog. Such is his reputation that the neighbors pick up the trash and keep the dog leashed. Calvin also rushes into action when an irate tenant (Bill’s a real estate agent who owns rental property) barges into the Sidey home to scream about an eviction notice. I don’t have to tell you that the young man stalking Calvin’s beautiful, seventeen-year-old granddaughter, had better watch his step; that confrontation is set up almost from the get-go.
There’s more–the widow next door who takes a fancy to Calvin; his sensitive grandson, Will, bullied by his so-called friends; Marjorie’s operation (a hysterectomy), which goes wrong, or appears to; and Bill’s ache for the father who’s remained out of reach. Six narrators tell this story, of uneven range and strength; except for the widow, the women’s voices seem insubstantial. Moreover, the presence of six narrators implies many subplots to keep spinning, two of which have little or nothing to do with the main narrative.
The myriad threads obscure the fabric of what matters most: Calvin’s grief over his dead wife, which led him to abandon his kids, and how Bill feels about that. Part of the problem is that Watson can’t seem to decide which to focus on, Calvin’s character or Bill’s loss of him. But either way, though the narrative mentions what these men feel and describes them having the feelings, they abruptly leave off grappling with them, and each other. Rather, events represent emotions, and only in that way do the characters take them in.
For instance, Bill fears for Marjorie’s life, and that his mother’s death will be repeated. His fear is irrational, and he knows it, but that’s how deeply he’s been scarred. Life feels fragile to him, and everything he has can be swept away. Unfortunately, Watson fiddles with this very human paradox, as if he can’t bear to let a rational man have an irrational fear; my God, what will the reader think of him? So melodrama takes over: Marjorie slips into a brief coma, and it appears, for awhile, that she might actually die.
In fact, melodrama undoes much fine work in As Good As Gone, for many chapters end just before impending violence, a cliff-hanger technique that resembles the Westerns whose myths Watson wishes to debunk. Calvin’s courage and willingness to act are admirable, but his stubborn refusal to listen to anyone else, his code of vigilante justice, and the way he equates softer, human feelings with weakness leads to trouble. These are compelling themes, and as I read, I couldn’t help thinking of Lonely Are the Brave, a terrific 1962 film starring Kirk Douglas. I only wish that Watson had used his gift for economy to better effect, much as the movie did.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.