As a Friend, Reviewed by Shane Patrick & Robert Kotyk for The Dominion

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When a successful poet sets out to write a novel, the results can often be mixed. From E.E. Cummings to Al Purdy, major poets often see their ventures into prose go long forgotten while their poetry remains revered. By the time a poet has become established – which often takes far longer than a single lifetime – it may be in the best interest of both writer and reader to stay within the bounds of pre-established technique. Forrest Gander, a leading American poet and translator, has carefully taken this plunge into the world of prose with his recent novel, As a Friend. However, Gander’s work remains immensely successful by making only the slightest concessions to the novel as an established form. At only 106 pages, As a Friend consists of four distinct sections that cover an admirable amount of stylistic and thematic territory. Gander’s greatest accomplishment is that he consistently knows when to inject his poetic observations and when to sit back and allow the story to unfold.

The novel opens with a mother in a hospital watching her teenage daughter struggle through a difficult birth. Gander’s depiction – interspersing poignant asides throughout a clear and neutral narration – becomes so palpable and gripping it feels as though he has gone through labour himself. From that loosely connected introduction, Gander explores the unintended consequences that extend from individual choices. The central figure of the novel is a poet and part-time labourer committed to exploring the multiple and often contradictory opportunities that life offers. He marries one woman, lives with another, sleeps with a revolving cast of extras. His goal is to find a “different way to be in the world,” but through love and friendship his iconoclasm leads a path of failure and pain, death and grief. It’s a stark and somewhat dreary tale, but Gander’s instincts as a poet allow him to build a mass of emotional insight without sentimentality, clichés, or wasted words.