Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

As a Friend, Reviewed by Mandy Twaddle for The Providence Journal

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I read this book in a single sitting . . . nothing to brag about, because it’s short, and once begun, the pages turn quickly. Forrest Gander, who teaches at Brown, is a poet, accustomed to distilling words. This is his first novel. It’s about the nature of attraction, how it reveals more about the attracted than its object of desire. Rarely is a friendship equal to both parties, and Gander’s story portrays the dangers in an imbalance.

Palling around with a star has its thrills. There is the warmth of reflected glory but also the chill of possible exclusion. The thinking goes like this: Star is fantastic. I am his friend. Therefore, I am fantastic. Self-worth is defined by association with the worthy.

There are four chapters here. The story opens with a harrowing depiction of childbirth, the kind so violent that the mother, child, or both will surely die. It’s rough. A boy is born and given up for adoption. The mother lives, but we never hear of her again.

Next we meet Les, a land surveyor with many gifts. He is a magnetic figure who pulls men and women into his orbit. Les loves ancient cultures, nature, exotic languages, and he has an outsized interest in people, claiming that “one life didn’t allow for the possibilities of one man.” His cohorts suspect he is a liar. He says he was adopted.

Clay, a colleague on the surveying team, admits that Les is a narcotic who in a “slow, smoky voice,” seamlessly incorporates lines from a poem into the flow of conversation. Clay is particularly struck by this Japanese haiku: “Everyone knows how much I love you. All your gestures . . . have become my gestures.” Hero worship with its undertones of Eros is a tip-off that Clay is ambivalent when it comes to Les.

Cora is Les’ wife who lives across the state line in Missouri. Her husband regularly returns to visit. She is unaware that Les has a lover, Sarah. The circle of friends is too tight to survive without consequence, even though Cora and Sarah have enough geography between them. Besides, Les is careful.

Clay becomes attached to Sarah. Does he love her, or is he merely mimicking his idol?

Clay reminds me of Merlin in Le Morte d’Arthur, and Iago in Othello, characters consumed by envy who scheme to bring the hero down. But Clay is a modern man and somehow more complex. He can blur the distinction between an enemy and a friend.

This is a wonderful gift for book clubs, out on the shelves during the Christmas holidays. It’s easy to read, but challenging to resolve on one’s own.