As a Friend, Reviewed by Jeanette Winterson for The New York Times Book Review

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“As soon as we make contact with the sacred,” a character says toward the end of “As a Friend,” Forrest Gander’s first novel, “we’re face to face with death.”

In this strange and beautiful novel as in life, love is part of what is sacred. Through love we get a chance to see past our own boundaries — not only into the life of another, but to the edge of life too: the last step off the seeming-solid into the weightlessness of death, its free form.

“As a Friend” is a love story, but it’s also a death story that shows how love and death are made of the same stuff: the same intensity of moment, the never-forgotten detail. The moment of finding that you love someone is like the moment of knowing you will never see that person again; its clarity is dazzling, and it alters everything — not just everything that will come after, but everything that has gone before.

Or, as another character puts it earlier in the book, “It seemed all of a sudden like a wind had slacked off and I was left leaning off-balance in a world something considerable had passed through.”

“As a Friend” is an unsettling book, haunting and haunted. Not much more than a hundred pages, it needs to be read slowly, to be uncovered like a secret or discovered like a treasure.

The story is a small one, with no ambitions to be the Great American Novel or to chronicle our time. It sets itself the task of seeing up close the lines of one man’s very particular life, and how those lines are walked and read, stumbled over and misread, by those nearby.

Its central character is Les, a poet and land surveyor, a man who measures the territory, both inside and outside, maps it for others, remakes it for himself, says where the boundaries are, until, in the tragedy of the climax, those boundaries are scuffed out.

Told simply, in four parts, the story opens with Les’s birth, his mother teenage and unwed, the baby boy adopted. The fierce beauty of the language begins at once, tracking the pain of giving birth, “the wet delta above the kidneys . . . knuckles wedged between the hot sheet and the flesh that heats it.”

Forrest Gander is a poet with seven collections to his credit (along with essays, translations and collaborations), and in this novel he returns words as meaning instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it never reaches the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, or of how it feels to feel. “As a Friend” is never sentimental, but it is all feeling, and that might be uncomfortable for readers who prefer language dwindled to defeat. This is language that is potent — it has a strong voice, so the reader has to sit down and listen to that voice, taking time, just as you would with a friend.

In Part 2, Les the baby has grown up. He’s almost a caricature of a poet, brooding, gorgeous, magnetic to women and men alike, childlike in his enthusiasms, adult in his sexual passions, always in the plural. Les is married, but tells his wife that he needs a home nearer his job for the working week, and that he shares it with Sarah, a lesbian. In fact, Sarah’s not lesbian; she’s his lover, who knows nothing about his wife, nor about the other lovers Les also takes when he has time, fitting them in somewhere between the lines, letting them read the fiction that they are the only one.

The narrator of this section is Clay, a 25-year-old wide-eyed guy who works with Les on the land-surveying jobs and falls in love with his sexy poet self. Clay mimics Les’s mannerisms and copies his swagger; he knows Les is a liar and a cheat but he treats him like a Greek god, which may be the right thing to do because the gods always were liars and cheats.

Clay is half in love with Les’s weekday girlfriend, Sarah, too, and in the typical muddle of a passionate soul who can’t yet understand himself or his sexuality, Clay tries to fuse with both of them until he finds he isn’t really with either of them, when he forces the situation to its cruel end. It is so easy to tell a wife that her husband is having an affair, so difficult to foresee the consequences. And it is always easier to try to control the lives of others than to face the inadequacies and disappointments of our own.

Les kills himself.

Part 3 consists of Sarah’s bereaved jottings, which in less sensitive hands than Gander’s could become random and maudlin. Here, the broken lines and scattered thoughts are a true expression of grief. We don’t grieve in straight lines. Sarah says, “I’ve gone dark as a hedge.” She says, “Love solves nothing, but your love made me appear to myself.” She says, “Still walking in my socks around the house as though I wouldn’t wake you.” Grief is circular. Gander somehow shows the shape of grief, using language like a compass to find the midpoint and then to trace the circle.

In Part 4 we finally get Les himself, in outtakes from a film interview. The man at the center of the circle is both more and less than the version of him others have drawn. Some of the things he says are wise, some just stupid. So it is with anyone real, unlike the measured platitudes and balanced phrases that hallmark the increasing army of unreal people, who never want to risk a wrong word and so speak only in clichés. There are no clichés to Les. He is a liar, but he doesn’t fake the truth where it counts.

That may be an odd thing to say about a fantasist and an adulterer — and Les is both — yet “As a Friend” has a remarkable way of challenging easy notions of truth and of right behavior, and it does so without anger. There is such honesty in this book — its purpose, its language, its feeling. It offers a way, as Les puts it, “to approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain.”