‘Let Him Go’ by Larry Watson

“Let Him Go” by Larry Watson (2013) – 269 pages

9781571311023

George and Margaret Blackledge are out to get their grandson back, and nothing will stop them.  The case here must be a fairly common situation today.  A young couple gets married, have a kid or kids, split (In this novel’s case the young husband dies).  The woman usually gets the kids, and the paternal grandparents are shut out from their grandchildren to a lesser or greater extent.  The woman takes up with another man on whom the paternal grandparents cast a particularly skeptical eye.   Then the woman and her new man take off for another town or state taking the kids with them, leaving the paternal grandparents in their dust.

Most grandparents might complain about this situation but will leave the thing alone.  Not George and Margaret.  These two grandparents are so sure of their own goodness and the new defacto step-father’s badness, they decide to attempt a ‘rescue’ of their grandson even if they have to break the law to do it.   George takes his gun with him.  They leave North Dakota and head to Montana to get their grandson back by any means possible.  At first one doubts their sense of moral superiority, but soon events unfold that reveal the essential shabbiness of their grandson’s new plight.

“Let Him Go” is an intense violent novel.  I have previously read Watson’s “American Boy” and “Montana 1948”.  Those were wistful coming-of-age nostalgic novels that take place in the northern states of Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  Those novels are strong, because of their sense of complex moral ambiguity  This new novel “Let Him Go” takes place in the same locale, but has a new sharper edge to it.  It is dark and unrelenting in its violent view of the world.

I did not like George and Margaret, the main characters, because they are so sure of their own goodness.  They have no doubts in their own rightness in taking this grandson away from his new family.  Yet the novelist Watson sides totally with these aggressive grandparents. As it turns out, the family they confront, the Weboys, are about as mean as can be.  Watson seems to be painting this story as an epic battle of good versus evil.  This does not seem realistic to me.  Real life is usually more inconclusive.    Both sides in this custody dispute are quick to take out their weapons and do real damage to each other.  The results are about what one would expect.

I know some reviewers have praised this intensity in Watson’s new novel.   The writing is sharp in all of these chapters of 5 or 6 pages, and there is little chance a reader will lose interest.  My only criticism is that the story is a little too simple-minded to be entirely realistic.  Perhaps if Watson had given a little more background on how these grandparents knew their grandson was in a terrible situation, I could have accepted their aggression.  But I suppose more background would have slowed down the pace of the novel.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. I love Larry Watson’s work, but must say you make a case that I won’t like this as much when I do get to it (I’m trying to read him in order, so it will be a few years before I get to this one).

    What I think he does best is capture the small detail and the effect it has on his characters (sort of like the tick under the skin). From your review, in this book he seems to have deserted that technique in exchange for an emphasis on the obvious.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      “Let Him Go” is a lot different than Larry Watson’s other books because of its intensity, violence, and its simple-mindedness. It has gotten a lot of praise for its intensity. To me it seems like he is doing a Cormac McCarthy thing. I’m not a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, but a lot of people are.

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  2. I loved Montana, 1948 because it is both intense and portrays a deliberate hero rather than one with a hair-trigger reaction. While violence occurs in that book, the important moment is the choice for decency of an ordinary man in an untenable situation. Sounds like this one lacks that complexity. I’m disappointed as I so like the two of his that I’ve read.

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    • Hi Charlotte,
      Yes, that is pretty much how I felt. “Montana 1948” and “American Boy” were elegiac and deep novels, while “Let Him Go” is all surface. George and Margaret take for granted that they are good people doing the right thing taking their grandson, and there is no background detailing the circumstances.

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  3. Well, given I’m not particularly a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and given it sounds like his strengths aren’t in McCarthyesque fiction anyway, I’ll be skipping.

    The simplicity would bother me. I was expecting as I read your review that the grandparents’ certainty would be tested. Merely confirming it makes it much less interesting. The average crime novel would raise more questions than it sounds like this does.

    Nice review.

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    • Hi Max,
      Yes, there’s enough simple-minded things on TV and movies that I come to fiction for a little depth. I even like novels told from the bad person’s point of view or which have an unreliable narrator who thinks they are doing good but actually aren’t. But maybe novelists feel a need to dumb down their work in order to get it made into a movie.

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      • Exactly. Also, I think literary writers often underestimate the skills required for good genre work. A good thriller for example takes real skill, a page-turning beach read does too. Not the same kind of skill as literary fiction, but skill for all that.

        I’ve encountered it most in SF where literary writers occasionally like to dabble (not as often as they do crime, but it happens) and it’s usually painfully obvious that they don’t know how to make the form work. They trot out ideas that in SF circles were tired in the 1950s (though if they get reviewed by literary fiction critics they often get a pass on that as the reviewers aren’t aware the ideas are old either), they focus on the wrong things, there’s no love of the form.

        To be a great SF writer you have I think to love SF. Similarly to be a great thriller writers thrillers have to excite you, to be what you want to write. To be a great literary fiction writer language has to excite you, or the problems of language (I’m simplifying horribly). Of course some people can and do transcend genre boxes or work in multiple genres without problem but it’s never as easy as just writing down to a non-literary audience.

        All that said, I still think Julian Barnes’ crime novels under his Kavanagh pseudonym are actually more interesting than his literary fiction. He missed a great career in crime that man, and all he got in return was a lousy Booker prize…

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        • Hi Max,
          I do agree that literary writers frequently don’t write good genre fiction, because they don’t love the genre to begin with. I myself have never been a big genre fan; mainly I like literary fiction. I don’t agree that literary fiction is all about the words or the language. I think what draws me to literary fiction is the depth of the characterization. I think genre fiction pretty much stays on the surface of its characters, where good literary fiction goes much deeper, exploring how we interact with other people, how we function in the world, our attitudes.

          I do read genre fiction from time to time. I don’t know if you consider Graham Greene a genre writer, but I believe he transcends genre and is one of the greats in literary fiction.

          That is interesting about Julian Barnes. I did not know that he wrote crime novels.

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          • You’re quite correct about characterisation. That’s what I get for being too brief in my comments.

            I think one does need to be careful with the term genre, as different genres have different interests. While most crime fiction is basically pablum, there is a definite strand in crime which is just as interested in exploration of character as literary fiction is. SF by contrast basically never has much interest in character save as a vehicle for ideas.

            SF, fantasy, thrillers, the rest of crime, these may have interesting or fun characters but rarely deep ones as that would distract from the genre’s other goals (though as I say, there’s a definite element of crime where exploring the depths is much of the point).

            The best crime fiction for me, where the genre becomes more than mere entertainment, aims to explore who we are and how we relate to the world. It is in that sense a moral exploration of society. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that small independent literary bookshops often have some high end crime fiction, but rarely any other genre.

            Well, I say rarely. They often have historical fiction. I can’t speak to its depth as it doesn’t generally interest me. Similarly I have nothing much to say on romance, since I don’t read it.

            I’ve read a fair bit of Greene. He’s a reminder that we can label however we like, but in the end the classifications are something we place on the works. They’re not intrinsic. I don’t know what he is, save that he’s very good at it whatever it is.

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            • Hi Max,
              I definitely would like some suggestions on Crime novels that offer depth of characterization. Of course there’s Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, but I’d like to hear of more. I would really like to read these. You might want to make a list and post it.

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              • Hi, sorry for the incredibly slow reply. Perhaps the Laidlaw books by William McInerney, or some of Jean-Claude Izzo’s work.

                Thinking about this more, I’d say that the best crime often concerns itself more with a moral critique of society. It tends to the societal where litfic tends to the invididual. A near perfect example is Manchette’s Three to Kill, which there’s a review of at mine. Another would be the Martin Beck series, but I’ve not read those yet so can’t speak to their quality.

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  4. Hi Max,
    I read your review of ‘Three to Kill’. Someone in the United States could write a similar book about someone who was a Sixties radical, but totally gave it up and became a stock broker or businessman.
    I’ll keep my eyes open for William McInerney and Jean-Claude Izzo.

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    • I’m not sure it would be similar though. The point in Three to Kill is that it’s a profoundly Marxist analysis. The protagonist changes not because he chooses to, but because his social context changes. He is very much a product of economic forces.

      Actually, you could make the same argument now I think about it. Access to prosperity changes the radical’s politics until they become effectively a capitalist. Not sure the US though has the Marxist tradition to produce that particular book.

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