Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling for The Colorado Review

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In his first novel, recently released by New Directions, award-winning poet Forrest Gander explores the intersection of attraction, betrayal, and friendship, a thematic approach that proves striking. Set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the book chronicles a series of emotionally fraught exchanges between Clay, the novel’s protagonist, and an enigmatic land surveyor named Les, whose deceptive life holds a strange fascination for residents of the small town. Gracefully integrating several characters’ stories, As a Friend uses the everyday as a point of entry into larger questions about the limitations and possibilities of relationships, remaining stylistically innovative all the while.

Gander’s use of these themes to structure the text is particularly impressive. Divided into four sections, each narrated by a different character, the book alternates between the protagonist’s perspective and the voices of several women involved in Les’s life. In doing so, the author frequently draws parallels between friendship and romance, suggesting that the boundaries between the two often blur. The passage in which Gander describes Clay’s perception of Les’s girlfriend, Sarah, exemplifies this trend in the novel. He writes, for example, in the second section of the book,

"Maybe I fell in love with Les through Sarah, but what it looked like to some people was that I had fallen in love with her. Maybe I had fallen in love with Sarah too, somehow, but I couldn’t really tell where Les stopped and she began. They were so entangled, you couldn’t razor them apart."

In other words, the author suggests that through friendship with Sarah, in which he learns a great deal about the young woman’s love for her Les, the protagonist finds himself attracted to Les in much the same way as she describes. For Clay, the two almost merge into the same character, an idea that Gander conveys gracefully through his characterization of Sarah, who, like many other men and women in the novel, appears as a foil to her inscrutable husband. Although presenting friendship as complementary to more romantic relationships, the author frequently suggests that the two types of interaction prove necessary to each other, particularly as they afford Clay a greater understanding of both Les and, in turn himself.

While presenting interaction with others as a means toward self-discovery, As a Friend also explores the effects of abandonment and betrayal on one’s identity, the end result being a multifaceted treatment of relationships in modern life. The author establishes these themes as central to the book in the first section, which begins by depicting a woman in childbirth, fighting for life as the father travels the Midwest “with five weeks’ pay and anaconda boots.” In doing so, Gander suggests that just as the new child is brought into a life already riddled with loss and bitterness, this presence of inevitable tragedy remains part of the human condition, into which every person is born. These themes are particularly apparent in the descriptions of the child’s effect on the young girl’s family, which the author describes thus:

"In the last few months, eating, sulking, expanding, the girl had spoken less and less as though her energies, the remnants of her youth, were being sucked inward and consumed. As if the infant were drawing off whatever was left of a cordial relationship between the widow and her daughter. And sometimes, it seemed to the widow that her daughter had pent up her feelings as punishment, as though she, her mother, were to blame."

In this excerpt, the author suggests that the child is brought up into a world that he has unknowingly changed, worsening the tensions between the young girl and her mother. By prefacing
As a Friend with a passage like this one, Gander implies that this kind of suffering often remains inextricable from the romance and self-discovery that other characters experience as a result of their relationships with Les. Ultimately portraying abandonment and introspection as closely connected, As a Friend offers readers a complex vision of the effects of relationships on its characters’ senses of self, an approach that proves through-provoking throughout.

In conveying these themes, Gander gracefully navigates several characters’ voices and perspectives, invoking the rich metaphors and lyricism that characterize his background as a poet. Often communicating the intricacies of the characters’ friendships and romances through recurring visual imagery, which complements and complicates its subject matter,
As a Friend continually allows small details to acquire a greater thematic significance within the narrative. This is particularly apparent in the portion of the book after Les has committed suicide: the third chapter takes the form of an elegy, in which his girlfriend, Sarah, bids him farewell by remembering each facet of their lives together. The passages within it read as a culmination of many of the images and motifs that have appeared throughout the book, in which Gander writes,

Your ever-present moleskin notebooks. Even when you surveyed.

The red-bellied woodpecker swerves over the primroses and claps itself to the crab apple trunk as if a magnet had drawn it. In dreams, that’s how I come to you.

Throughout this excerpt, Sarah evokes the minutiae of her life with her lover in mourning him. While doing so, she recalls details that Clay himself had also noted, such as the moleskin notebooks, ultimately suggesting an affinity between the two characters’ relationships with Les. By drawing parallels like this one with recurring imagery, Gander gracefully employs the associative logic of poetry in his novel, offering a though-provoking portrait of friendship and selfhood all the while.

As a Friend is an enigmatic, intelligent book. Ideal for those who enjoy fiction and poetry alike, Forrest Gander’s new book is a must-read.