- As Good as Gone: A Novel by Larry Watson
"If you say you'll do something, then by God you better be ready to do it. Otherwise, you're just making empty threats. And no one's going to respect that kind of man," Calvin Sidey remarks to his grandson Will (102). The temper of Calvin's statement—its unwavering certainty—reflects Calvin's rigid adherence to a masculine code grounded in the cowboy mythology of the American West. As clear-cut and admirable as this code may be, the tone of Calvin's statement borders on arrogance, an arrogance that, in the end, leads to a confrontation with profound moral implications.
Calvin is the protagonist of Larry Watson's beautifully written, engaging, and nuanced new novel, As Good as Gone. A former resident of the Montana town of Gladstone, a self-exiled, hardened ranch hand and recovered alcoholic, Calvin Sidey lives alone in a trailer on the outskirts of Montana "civilization"—in this case the small, increasingly gentrified 1960s town of Gladwell. To his chagrin, his son and local realtor Bill asks Calvin to return to town to look after his grandchildren—a teenage girl and an adolescent boy—so Bill can take his wife to Missoula to undergo an operation. Driven by a sense of family loyalty, Calvin agrees. Already mysterious and mythic in town—supposedly having murdered someone years ago—Calvin, in the tradition of the cowboy hero, wastes no time in his return to civilization to effectively confront injustices, however small, according to his cowboy code of justice, including demanding that a neighbor clean up garbage cans upended by the neighbor's dog. A more serious act of enforcing justice is reserved for his granddaughter Ann's former boyfriend Monte, whose menacing presence builds over the course of the novel as he stalks Ann, [End Page 118] leading to a confrontational masculine "showdown" between Calvin and Monte and the enactment of Calvin's righteous sense of cowboy justice and the restoration—at least in this instance—of the moral order.
Watson skillfully draws the reader into Calvin's character—no doubt a reader well versed in the mythic West may want Calvin to represent a modern-day version of the frontier hero, as do the Sideys' neighbor Beverly, who has a short but torrid affair with him, and his young grandson Will, who wants to leave Gladstone to live with his grandfather to become a cowboy, despite Calvin's unromantic description of that life to him. It seems that in his return from the "wilderness," Calvin appears poised to continue fulfilling his mission to civilization by righting all the wrongs of a corrupt town and, by extension, affirming the righteousness of the hypermasculine national myth. Yet Watson's depiction of Calvin's righteous words and actions, however attractive and satisfying on the surface, are at the same time discomfiting to Beverly and the reader alike.
In Watson's deft hands the tidy simplicity of the mythic West is anything but, as Calvin's masculine righteousness devolves into blind wrath toward Lonnie Blackpipe, a local impoverished Blackfeet man introduced early in the novel who has supposedly plotted to blow up the Sidey home as payback for a rent dispute linked to his son Bill. And here's where Watson's considerable skills as a writer—similar to those enforcing his message in his powerful novel Montana, 1948 (2007)—are on display as the novel's culminating showdown between Calvin and Lonnie implicitly foregrounds the fact that the hypermasculinity embedded in the mythic narrative of the West, and by extension the national identity, was built upon the outright theft of Native lands. In Watson's hands, the violent showdown between Calvin and Lonnie at the novel's end takes on a profound moral dimension as the reality of material history and its legacy comes up against Western mythology. The drama surrounding the showdown—the anxieties, the self-righteousness, the violence, the questions of morality—reflect the dominant culture's own tormented...