It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.
In Eric Barnes’s haunting new novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, this ambivalence is built into the structure of the book. (Full disclosure: Barnes and I published our first novels with the same small press back in 2009 and met a couple of times at booksellers’ conventions that year.) Barnes’s protagonist is Brian Porter, born and raised in Tacoma. The book is divided into five sets of five chapters, identically titled in all five instances: Now, With Kyle, Tacoma, Driving Away, Returning. The Now chapters are haunted by the past; the With Kyle chapters are suffused with regret; Tacoma is home, to be driven away from and returned to. Home exerts a pull, and it simultaneously repulses.
The novel circles through Brian’s life at various points. He is a motherless boy, a wild teenager, and a haunted man. Barnes has a good eye for the Pacific Northwest, the way grey skies and constant rain can lend a not-entirely-unpleasant melancholy to a place. Brian grows up in a working-class neighborhood, not so much gritty as perpetually damp. His parents were teenagers when he was born, and his mother walked out soon after. His father’s raising him, when he isn’t working, which is most of the time. His friends live in similar situations.
From early childhood onward, Brian is caught between two social poles. Kyle, his best friend, has always been good, in some essential sense of the word. Kyle’s low-key decency puts him at odds with Will Wilson, a sociopath who exerts a gravitational pull on Brian and on two other boys.
Brian spends a great deal of time with Kyle, and a great deal of time with Will Wilson, but never both at the same time. From puberty onward, life revolves around cars, but here is the difference: Kyle “started driving to his after school job when he was twelve, using a beat up car his older cousin had given him.” Will Wilson’s crew, on the other hand, uses cars to play car tag — two cars, a driver and a gunner in each, the teams trying to take each other out with BB guns. Later, there’s another, more dangerous game, in which the driver takes the car up to high speeds and then climbs out the window. Whoever’s in the passenger seat takes the wheel; the first driver slides over the roof — if the car’s going fast enough, he levitates just above the metal — and then into the car through the back passenger-side window, breathless and exhilarated with the nearness of death. “You live your life telling stories,” Barnes writes,
to people in a bar, to the guys you work with, to women you meet. When you’re a kid you tell stories to each other, sometimes only killing time between the next story you’d make. Will Wilson told stories with us and now when I think about him I think that maybe he told the stories with us, about the things the four of us did, only until he got bored of them, and then he started to make a new plan, to start a new story we could later tell.
The question, of course, is how far Will Wilson will go. He pulls Brian and the others further and further out, beyond ordinary teenage recklessness and into the kinds of stories that can mark lives forever. Quietly and methodically beating up other teenagers makes a good story, but not as good a story as arson. Arson’s not a bad story, but it’s less exciting than breaking and entering. The story no one thinks of, because the future seems so abstract, is how they’ll find a way to live with these stories in adulthood.
Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is a remarkable book. Barnes effectively builds the tension of the story with his elliptical structure, and his prose is beautiful. He expertly manages events that in lesser hands would devolve into melodrama. This is a world where the pull of friendship is far stronger than the pull of family, where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts.
I find it difficult to separate a book from the experience of reading it. I spent a great deal of time on tour this summer, reading at bookstores from southern California to New Hampshire, and I encountered Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 toward the end of all this, a hot day in Ann Arbor when I had some time to kill before an event. I was traveling with Unbridled Books’ sales director, who I’d name except that he once stated a preference for being a silent partner in these things. He’d been driving me all over the state of Michigan so that he could talk to independent bookstore owners and I could read at their bookstores. We’d done the same thing in New England a month earlier.
We spent an hour or so in the Dawn Treader Book Shop (“Ann Arbor’s Best Browse”, according to the bookmark.) I feel an inordinate amount of guilt when I buy used books from living authors (the lost royalties! The book that doesn’t appear on the sales numbers and thus lessens the odds of the publisher wanting to buy the author’s next book!) but I do it anyway sometimes, and I’d spent a small fortune on new books that week. I picked up Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which I liked, and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, which strikes me as a small masterpiece.
It was a bit of a leap of faith—the copy I picked up was a small green hardcover, cloth-bound and missing its jacket, so there was no synopsis or any other indication of what the book was about—but my traveling companion pointed at it and said “Have you read this? It’s quite good,” and I’m susceptible to the recommendations of people who read a lot. I read the first two chapters in the bookstore and decided I couldn’t continue to live without reading the rest.
The next day my flight home from Michigan was canceled, which wasn’t entirely surprising—I was, after all, flying Delta, which in my experience seems to suffer from an unusual degree of difficulty in getting its planes off the ground—and I found myself with five hours to kill in the Detroit airport. For the first time that week, my habit of buying a book at every tour stop seemed sensible. I found a quiet corner and read Montana 1948 in its entirety.
I’ll let you guess when and in which state the book takes place. It’s summertime, and the narrator is twelve-year-old David Hayden. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of their fictitious small town. His uncle Frank is a war hero and a highly respected local doctor, the favorite of their domineering rancher father. David is close with the Sioux woman who works in the household, Marie Little Soldier. When she falls ill one morning, David’s parents call Frank to look in on her. But not only does Marie refuse treatment, she refuses to be left alone in the room with the doctor, and flies into a panic when he comes close. When pressed, she tells David’s parents that Frank has been molesting local Native American women and girls for years. She’s dead within days, ostensibly of pneumonia; but she had been showing signs of recovery the day before she died, and David saw his uncle leaving their house around the time of her death.
It’s a well-plotted story, but the marvel of this book is the quiet lucidity of the prose. I’m frequently drawn to literary pyrotechnics, fractured narratives and jigsaw-puzzle structures—Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin—but the linear simplicity of the story is captivating in an entirely different way. A story that could easily spin off into melodrama is told with utmost calm and restraint. In the afternoon I spent with this book, I hardly noticed I was stranded in an airport.