Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Undiscovered Country"

Lin Enger is the MFA director at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. His short stories have been published in a number of journals, including Glimmer Train Stories, Great River Review, American Fiction, South Dakota Review, Wolf Head Quarterly, and Ascent. During the 1990s, he published five mystery novels, writing in collaboration with his brother, the novelist Leif Enger.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Undiscovered Country, and reported the following:
At the heart of Undiscovered Country is a psychological snarl involving four people. More than just four, but these four make up the tight core of the knot: Jesse Matson, the seventeen-year-old narrator; his mother Genevieve; his father Harold, who has died of a gunshot wound while hunting; and Jesse’s uncle Clay, who may or may not have been involved in his brother Harold’s death. All are residents of a small northern Minnesota town called Battlepoint—though of course Harold has moved on to another place.

The antecedents of the novel’s premise can be found in Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Genesis. It’s an old story—universal, to use the literary term—as most stories are if you boil them down far enough.

Anyway, on page 69 all four main characters are present. Jesse’s father is dead less than a week, and in this scene Jesse and his mother—both ruined by grief—have been trying to sort things out, figure out how to move on. Also, they’ve been talking about Clay, the uncle whom Jesse has good reason not to trust.

…Mom squeezed her eyes closed in a long blink, then she planted her hands on the tabletop, pushed herself to her feet and stood up straight, squaring her shoulders. I have to go to the bathroom, she said. I’ll be right back.

Dad helped him too much, I said. Way too much. He should’ve let Clay make it on his own.

She nodded, then moved toward the stairwell, her steps slow and calculated.

In fact, the only thing standing between Clay and self-obliteration—as far as I could tell—had been Dad, and if Mom couldn’t see that, she was blind. I remembered a Saturday morning not long before Marnie died of cancer. Dad and I were sanding the maple floors in our living room when Clay came tearing through the front door, his breathing frayed and tattered, hair flopped down over his forehead.

If somebody comes looking, I’m not here, he said, and crossed to the stairway that led to the second floor. He hadn’t even started climbing before a man burst into the house without knocking, his face swollen and red, eyes shining like diamond studs. He stood for a moment, silent, then magically transported himself across the bare sawdusty floor. Clay fought him off and escaped into the kitchen, the other guy holding tight to the ridiculously stretched cloth of Clay’s orange shirt. I must have followed them, because I can still see the man swinging at Clay’s head, missing outright and striking his fist on the sharp edge of a kitchen cabinet. Then stumbling to one knee and shaking out his hand.

I remember thinking, What am I doing here?
Read more about Undiscovered Country at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue