“American Boy” by Larry Watson (2011) – 246 pages
Considering that Larry Watson’s most famous novel, which I have also read, is “Montana – 1948”, this new novel could have been called “Minnesota – 1962”. Instead it is called “American Boy”, the story of a small town teenage boy who finds out that the people and events in his town aren’t always as clear and straightforward as they seem. The story takes place in the imaginary Minnesota town of Willow Falls.
“American Boy” is a classic coming-of-age story of youthful emulation and disillusionment. This is a very common theme of fiction. It is Larry Watson’s writing mastery that makes “American Boy” a superior fiction and an outstanding novel. Each chapter of “American Boy” is only five or six pages, but each chapter can stand alone as a well-defined short story itself with its own opening, climax, and denouement. The writing is spare, crystal-clear, and to the point. It seems almost as if the words were etched rather than typed. Watson paints a vivid picture of what life is like in this little town of Willow Falls, the class differences, the eventful days of a small-town doctor, the dreams and desires of a teenage boy moving precariously into adulthood.
“We were exposed to these phenomena in order that we might learn something, but then the lessons we learn are not always those we are taught. . . .”
I do have one minor qualm with the novel, and that is with its title. There are a lot of American boys, and most of them are not small town white boys. The title ‘American Boy’ belongs to all of these boys, and no one has a special claim to it.
The writing of Larry Watson captures perfectly life as it was lived in the early 1960s. There is a depth to these small town characters that goes way beyond any stereotypes. The setting may be classic American, but the plot catches up to the moral ambiguity of modern times.
“American Boy” is a quick read, well worth the time spent