Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Joyelle McSweeney for The American Book Review

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At 106 pages, Forrest Gander's
As a Friend makes for barely an afternoon's reading. Yet its length is an asset, delivering its beguiling pleasures swiftly into retrospect and lending the book the same mercurial qualities as its ostensible subject, the doomed, magnetic Les. Sharing a biography with the poet Frank Stanford, Les is a young poet and surveyor whose intensity and brilliance electrify the residents of this remote Arkansas town, a town which harbors a nest of artists among its good country people. Part train wreck, part rock star, Les couples a nineteenth-century devotion to friendship with a 1970s approach to monogamy. Resultingly, he uses, tests, enthralls, inspires, lavishes attention upon and ultimately devastates the friends who help narrate this choral tale, friends who seem never to have recovered from either his friendship or its loss.

As a Friend begins with a lengthy, geologic description of a birth, a child eventually emerging from elaborately diagrammed strata of mortal materials: body and blood, hope and disappointment, sin and pain. Thus, Les is born to a teenage mother who gives him up for adoption and exits the plot, wondering, “Her lost boy. Whatever became of him?” For all its detail and diction, this before-the-curtain scene is swept away and serves as prologue for the plot that follows. One is tempted to read this as Gander's gloss on fatality-the character Les will come to his untimely end for no other reason than his untimely birth-except that the work that follows presents us with a surfeit of fates, reasons, causalities, even births. As the next section opens,

Les let himself in without knocking and two at a time shot up the stairs like he was escaping a bear…Les liked staging dramatic interactions from which he could exit quickly, leaving a charged space behind him. His resonance. He would punctuate the remarkable things he said with silences, his extravagant gestures with absence. Looking back, I imagine that he was practicing his death. And when he came into my apartment that night and handed me a poem, he was securing my role in it…The poem was titled “The Plot.”

In contrast to the impacted dilation of the first birth sequence, here Les gives birth to himself in double-time, “let[ting] himself in.” The title of his poem clearly cuts three ways, referring to the book-in-hand, as well as a plot of land and a burial plot. The reference to the bear feels like a reversed allusion to Lear, though here instead of the flight from the plot we have here the flight of the plot itself, which “shoots” like the bullet which will eventually find its home in Les's body.

The various surveying sojourns in the forest primeval also lend this book a nineteenth-century feel.

As the above passage exemplifies, the second section of the book exploits the noir genre, heavy on atmospherics, foreboding, erotics, and guilt. The narrator of this second section is Clay, whose nomen also seems to be an omen, signifying his feet of clay, his fallibility, his sense of himself as a mere mortal against Les's tantric, deified self. Indeed, Clay's allegorical praenomen prompts one to consider Les's pointedly abbreviated name, to consider the absent “s” that makes Les so palpably more.

Clay's and Les's surveying work forms a nice allegory for their functions as both narrators and protagonists, with sightlines on and agency within the plot; they appear to simply study the natural world, but really, they allow a map to be made of it; they mark it for man's devices. The surveying scenes also allegorize the men's relationships. Charged with drawing straight lines, Les abandons his job; Clay covers for him but his lines don't meet, and he's doomed to repeat his task.

For all his unreliability with figures, Clay delivers the most complete accounting of Les's charismatic existence and death. Obsessed with his friend, Clay thinks he himself fired the figurative shot that caused Les's death. But by the time he seems to have pinpointed his ethical location, his vantage, his culpability, that point has already long ago eroded:

It's as if every time I start to do something I've planned for months, I get hit in the back of the head with a bottle someone chucks from a passing van. And I abandon whatever it was I meant to do, I'm already in motion, I'm doing something else, just reacting, and whatever I planned is payed out way behind me.

Indeed, for all Clay's sense of guilt, in the next section, an elegy voiced by Les's girlfriend, Sarah, Clay doesn't figure at all.

The various surveying sojourns in the forest primeval also lend this book a nineteenth-century feel, as if centuries and not decades had transpired since its events, and as if its real desire were to take a longer and still longer view. But this is no idyll. There's both beauty and direness in Clay's nature descriptions; more than just a setting for the book, nature is a kind of louche, dangerous, self-interested, generative, murky material which may be configured as animal, vegetable, mineral, man, or woman. Call it nature noir:

A killdeer circled, its dee-ee rising. A plane droned, invisible. I was a good sixty yards away from Quinton in green fescue. There were milkweed plants here and there and I knew they would ruin the hay- it's toxic to horses. But that wasn't my problem.

The third section of the book is also rife with the natural but exploits a high lyricism reminiscent of both the Song of Solomon and the Psalms; the fourth, lost outtakes from an interview with Les, presents him in tones reminiscent of Sam Brakhage. Yet for all these voices, it's the voice of Clay, his resonance, that remains with one once the book is done, and one even suspects that the voices here-by turns descriptive, guilt-stricken, grief-stricken, and rhapsodic-are all his, the novel his attempt to lock the fragments of the past in place through one last effort at triangulation.