An American Boy by Larry Watson


Having loved Montana, 1948 so much last year, I decided to start the year with another Larry Watson book.  This one is on Tony's top ten list for 2012.  

It is set in the southern region of Minnesota, not far from where I am visiting at the moment, in the senior year of high school for the narrator Matthew in 1963, the very year I graduated.  Matthew attached himself to the family of his best friend, a good choice as his father has died and his mother works as a waitress. The Dunbar family is prominent in their tiny town, and the father is the local doctor.  He misses no opportunity to teach his son and Matthew about the practice of medicine.  Matthew is beloved of the young twins of the family and well-fed by the mother.

Many scenes of the comfortable life of the time are recounted: pick-up ice hockey games, the weekly post-church breakfasts at the local hotel, the usual high school boy drinking. So much was familiar in this coming of age story, even the description of the poker games:

Johnny and I and some of the other fellows in Otis's kitchen played poker often, and we took the game seriously  Our preferred game was stud, either five- or seven-card, and we scorned wild-card or split-pot games.  We didn't show hole cards when the privilege wasn't paid for.

This is how I learned poker from my father, playing for matchsticks.

And there was the near-Mrs. Robinson moment for Matthew.  But the real drama that set the story apart from the quiet life of the time involved a beautiful young woman taken into the doctor's home when she was shot by the man she lived with in a hut in the woods. 

Like Montana, 1948 the narrator tells the story as an adult looking back, a very successful device in the hands of this amazing writer.

Larry Watson, An American Boy, Milkweed Editions, 224 pages (I read the kindle edition).

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