Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Kevin Killian for Amazon

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Though I would not call this a detective story, it's clearly an experiment in mixing up genres and blending them together. Each of the novel's four parts has its own form, perhaps to lure you in, for they progress from the fairly traditional to the more and more difficult. I opened this book to around page 80 and nearly gave it up, convinced I wasn't even going to be able to penetrate it, but luckily common sense convinced me to start again this time from page one, and maybe that would be easier going. Sure enough, by the time I reached page 80 through this method I was on an endorphin high and I felt that the author was writing directly onto my brain.

The main character, a poet and land surveyor called Les, lives somewhere in the south, maybe Tennessee or Arkansas, where his dark and smoldering good looks make hopeless wrecks out of the men and women who can't help loving that man. Even though Les is fairly obscure someone is apparently making a documentary film of his life. It become clear that Les is living the "Captain's paradise" sort of lifestyle, he's married to one woman (Cora) while living with another (Sarah, a poet herself), but the hounds of hell lope after him as well. It's hard to write this sort of Byronic, doomed, charismatic character, and I have yet to work out exactly how Forrest Gander succeeds so splendidly, but part of it must be the choices he makes in his narrators and the focus he pays on the way they perceive not only his sensual attractions but the entire landscape and social milieu in which he dwells. In a way the book feels very private and raw, and in other ways it feels very public, because that's the double edge of the roman a clef, and AS A FRIEND is patently a novel inspired by the real life poet Frank Stanford (1948-78) and yet it isn't about Stanford entirely.

The opening scene is a graphic account of Les' birth, it is like something Steinbeck tore out of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, too vivid, too violent. Chapter two is told by Clay, Les' co-worker out in the muddy landscapes of south central Ozark country. Clay doesn't identify as gay but has to come to terms with the fact that he is finding his buddy almost terrifying attractive. His turmoil results in a shocking twist I won't spoil here but it is like a James Cain noir story of lives torn apart by a simple word spoken into the wrong woman's ear. I guess I keep thinking of 30s antecedents for Forrest Gander's novel, --maybe it's the WPA lifestyle these boys embody, in their rattletrap trucks and their smoky roadhouses and addiction to jazz music.

In part three Sarah, Les' love interest, gets to speak her mind in the months after a violent and devastating event. Not since Bessie Smith sang about those "Empty Bed Blues" have I listened to such a Biblical type of sorrow, studded with glimpses of the real and mirrored by a frightening absence.

All in all it's a fantastic book, though if Amazon is saying this volume is 192 pages they're overestimating it by 80 or 90 percent. And what about that clunker of a title? Wasn't there the editor at New Directions to take Forrest Gander out to lunch and tell him, "Änd as a friend, get a new f--ing title." But otherwise I expect you will be riveted as I was by this amazing and unexpected masterpiece.