Larry Watson’s new novel American Boy is a classic coming-of-age story. Despite the fact that many novelists before him have worked to perfect this theme, Watson’s take, for me, was especially resonant with its classically Midwestern setting and characters. This, coupled with Watson’s wonderful sense of language, made for a great winter read.
Matthew Garth is Midwestern to the core, born and raised in the small town of Willow Falls, Minnesota. After the death of his father several years before the action of the novel begins, the Dunbars, Matt’s best friend Johnny’s family, comprise Matt’s second home. Like Johnny, Matt idolizes Rex Dunbar, Johnny’s father and the town’s respected doctor. In fact, Johnny and Matt spend much of their time following the doctor around, gleaning information about the profession as they aspire to become physicians themselves.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day 1962, Matt and Johnny volunteer to help Dr. Dunbar locate a girl who has been shot and subsequently change their lives forever. Once the girl, Louisa Lindahl, is found, the doctor treats her wound and the Dunbars invite her to live with them as she recovers. Matt quickly develops an intense crush on the mysterious girl and as a result, becomes obsessively involved with the Dunbars. As his relationship with the family intensifies, Matt painfully discovers that the Dunbars are far from deserving of the pedestal he has placed them on.
For all of its poignant insight on American life and the human condition, American Boy is also a bona fide page-turner. The story of Matt and the Dunbars is compelling and well paced, a testament to Watson’s superior story-telling ability. Complementing the action of the story is the language. Watson evokes Minnesota’s barren winter climate with his clear, stark language and uncomplicated imagery. Altogether these achievements make for a novel I was tempted to read in one sitting.
Though the coming-of-age story is nothing new in American letters, it is always a treat when an accomplished author offers his take on the motif. Larry Watson is one such writer and has certainly gained a fan in me with American Boy.