I know this novel’s been dragging on too long, as I’ve been distracted by other things. So I’ve made the conscious decision to get this book finished (especially since I enjoy it) and move forward. So this is my last update about Laughing Boy before my review. The above quotation is, of course, Laughing Boy, who finds that marriage to a secretive lady-of-the-evening (“prostitute” is such a harsh word….and a bit misleading in this case, though not much) ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. He, of course, does not initially realize that Came-With-War, his wife, has this extracurricular occupation, but this is the part of the novel where things get complicated. I don’t want to give away a lot of the plot, since I think this is a good enough book to recommend, so I want to focus on what I think La Farge does well, independent of the plot (which is, I’ll just say, believable enough to avoid distracting you, but does operate on a bit of a heightened melodramatic level).
La Farge is great with characters—not Whartonesque (no one in this book could really rival Mrs. Manson Mingott), but near Edith in his talents. His ability to walk down the tense line he does—how a troubled young marriage balances between trust and suspicion, how a single heart can build up hatred to the point that it looks like love, how a young woman can manage to contain two cultures, two worlds, in one life—takes that kind of deft touch, and he’s good with it. At times, he even sparkles with a clarity that is, in fact, equal to similar moments in Wharton and Austen: most memorably, a brief passage where he describes a wealthy American who pays more and more to try to bind his lover to him, noting that while the man knows that money is no way to win a sincere affection, deep down he needs to be lied to convincingly enough to blind himself to the truth, for his own sake. That willing self-deception, driving with it the downward spiral of overcommitment, is a really complicated emotion, but La Farge makes it come across. He is stilted in dialogue, but usually I think because he wants his native characters to speak using their idioms and their cultural values. Because he’s not quite good enough to bring us inside the culture, their outward interactions feel stiff and somewhat formal, but that’s just the way many cultures look to the uninitiated—the feeling I get is very strong that he allowed some conversations to be less dramatic rather than try to “spice them up” with what would inevitably be caricatures.
And the setting here continues to develop really intriguingly: La Farge is wretched with visual details (in my opinion—I never get a really clear image of localities, events, etc., in this book) but fantastic with details about how characters see and perceive each other. That means that the environment around these characters rises more slowly than I want it to, but that as it becomes clear, I see the surroundings through a very well-rounded and human lens. I don’t see the pasture because he helps me “see” it, I see the pasture because I see in it Laughing Boy’s dreams of success, his emotional relationship to the horses he raises, the importance that an old friend meets him there when he least expects it. La Farge isn’t a great craftsman at every level, which keeps this book from my personal pantheon. But he was smart enough to know what he did well, and stuck to it: like a lesser Baroque composer who only really understands canons, and decides to write a few good ones rather than slave away on a wretched fugue or two because everyone else is doing it. Though maybe that analogy works for too few of you?
This novel explores a lot of great issues and without prejudgment (or excessive moralizing). You don’t see much condescension in the narrator’s perspective on Came-With-War’s infidelity: if anything, I think the novel’s position is that sometimes good people do unwise things, and there’s generally a reason for it. Both she and her husband struggle with the question of whether it’s better to grit your teeth and hold on in the tough times, or if it’s better to cut one’s losses and find a new path—neither of them (yet, at least) have given any sense that either choice is right. I’m curious how a Native American, especially a Navajo, would see this novel…from my perspective, it’s very respectful of Navajo tradition and positive (in an honest way) about its relevance in an increasingly “American” world. (“American” isn’t the right word, but “industrial” is farther off, and I don’t know that I have any other better options.)
A review soon, as well as reviews of two books sent me by authors (one a good friend, and one a recent arrival in the comments section here) who have nothing to do with the Pulitzers but who I won’t be able to help talking about. And I may review or reflect on some books I’m reading for my last slate of classes here at the end of graduate school. All that, plus starting a new Pulitzer book, and keeping up with Poetry Friday….we’ll see how much I can accomplish, but I hope to keep the train moving. This Pulitzer goal isn’t going to go away, and neither am I.