As a Friend
A Novel
Forrest Gander
(New Directions)
Clay works in surveying with Quinton and Les. Quinton doesn't care about anyone except Quinton. Clay is in love and in hate with Les.

Les, in turn, is in love (or in lust) with Sarah and Cora ... and "the potter, the folk singer, the bartender," whatever he can find. He doesn't seem to care for Clay, probably knows about Clay's love for him; probably doesn't care.

Les is one of those Jungian archetypal heroes in a contemporary American setting. Clay well remembers one night: "I could smell him when he took off his shirt --- vinegar and goat. His muscled arms and stocky legs. He shucked his jeans and boxers in one motion and dove from the dock quickly but not before I glimpsed and then --- as right in front of me his body jackknifed open over waves lit softly by the full moon."

Les and Sarah and Clay go hiking in Lost Valley. Clay comments on the Judas trees lit up on the north-facing slope. Judas trees. After the jackknife in the water routine, he says, "I needed to see Les because he eclipsed me. I despised him, I was in love with him."

Sarah loves Les; Clay claims to love her as well. That leaves only one person to be destroyed: "Envy turned me inside out. I hated him ... I felt like I could smell his death rise up in him, flush with the veins and scars on his forearms, plumb with the rise of his cheekbones and the dense bright gaze of his eye."

    I felt I suddenly had power because he didn't suspect me. I could get inside him without him knowing it, like a parasite.

It's a simple boy loves boy loves girl story. Clay wants to get the women out of the picture (Sara; wife Cora off across the state line). If he tells Sara about Cora and Cora about Sara then they will cancel each other out and he'll have Les to himself. He can't conceive of Les canceling himself out ... which is exactly what happens.

§     §     §

The wonder of this is the concentration of it. It's Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio married to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, brought together with overtones of Faulkner. (It's no accident that there is a character here named Quinton, whose name will set off bells for those of us who have been reading and rereading The Sound and the Fury for lo these many years.)

In contrast to craven Clay and boorish Quinton, Les is no dummy. There are a flurry of writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers running around in his brain: Coltrane, Thoreau, Walter Raleigh ("True love ... is a durable fire in mind"), Giotto, Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, Miles ("I listen to what I leave out,") Blake, Coleridge, Sydney Bechet, Modrian, Jimmy Cliff, Poussin, Kenneth Rexroth ("All your gestures / Have become my gestures.") For a 106 page book to be so crammed with writers and artists might seem to be overachieving, but such is the wit of Gander's writing that these names don't clog and offend: they are as easy here as is the magnificent sketching of his characters ... Les, a Missouri renaissance man, the soulful Sara, and narrator, Clay, an Iago in the summer fields of midland America.

§     §     §

Forrest Gander? Did he make up that name? By page 7 you can't tear me away. By page 20 I am thinking where did he come from (Mars? Venus?) And by page 50 I am thinking there are writers and there are writers and this guy takes the cake. How do these novelists do it?

Dylan Thomas said it was all a matter of "a craft and sullen art." It sure as hell is not something they teach you in school. Don't ask me. I tried.

§     §     §

Finally, some advice. If you ever want to have a baby, please don't read Chapter One (pages 3 - 13), "The Baby." If you want to be a surveyor, stay away from Chapter Two. If you ever think of ratting on your loves' loves, read page 65.

And ... if you want to be a writer, study Gander. Hard.

--- Lolita Lark
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