Leif Enger's Off-beat Novel



By Leif Enger

Thorndike Press, 286 pages





What an odd and delightful book! So Brave, Young, and Handsome came out in 2008, when author Leif Enger was still working for Minnesota Public Radio. It often reads like a young adult novel, though it's not one—more like what you might get if you crossed YA wonderment with a Lake Woebegone tale, Huckleberry Finn, and a gentle send up of a Zane Grey Western.


It is set in 1915, a time in which automobiles and horses coexist, though the latter are more reliable. Monte Becket, his wife Susannah, and their son Redstart live along the Cannon River, a for-real tributary of the Mississippi in southeastern Minnesota. Monte penned a Western novel, Martin Bligh, that caught fire and his publisher is clamoring for more. Alas, Monte is having trouble capturing lightening in a jar a second time. Susannah retains faith in him, but Monte trashes draft after draft rejected by editors who want another Martin Bligh.


As such stories go, a mysterious stranger comes into their lives, a boat builder going by the handle of Glendon Hale. He lives in a converted barn downstream, but becomes a frequent dinner guest at the Becket household and a man Monte considers his friend. Glendon has traveled and his tales also delight young Redstart. One day, though, Glendon announces he is leaving, ostensibly to travel to Mexico to apologize to Blue, the love he left behind six years earlier. When he asks Monte if he'd like to come along, Susannah encourages him to go for a few weeks, thinking it might help him get over writer's block.


That's one way of looking at it. Their journey begins on water, but is abandoned when their small rowboat is nearly wiped out on the Mississippi by some rogues. Or are they pursuers? Surprise! Glendon is a wanted man with more aliases than a Russian spy. A man named Charlie Siringo is after Glendon, though he's also a cad, an ex-Pinkerton Detective who is a self-appointed freelance bounty hunter. Monte considers hightailing it back to Susannah, but he's such a milquetoast that you can convince him to do anything. Wouldn't wish to offend, after all, even if it means he has to come up with his own aliases, eat stolen food, and tell a few fibs.


A madcap journey unfolds in which one oddball character after another appears. There is, for instance, Glendon's friend Darlys De Foe, a sharp shooter with failing eyesight; Hood Roberts, a youngster who sells Monte a Packard and wants to ride along to a circus in Oklahoma; and Ern Swilling, an actor who will break his neck and wonder why he is seeing in back of himself. Is anyone on the up an up? Nope.


So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a series of comic misadventures, several of them tinged with tragedy. The latter, though, don't sting because the novel reads like a fable. Of what? Good question. It is surely the passing of one way of life with another having a difficult time being born. Sometimes it seems to be about redemption, though the lesson fails to take more often than it does. Plus, even if you were to assign some moral to it, the novel's tone is too offbeat for your judgment to stand up under cross examination. It's ultimately about how Monte finds his mojo but mainly it's a wacky road trip that ends in California. Glendon will seek out Blue–her name is actually Arãnado–but this isn't a hearts-and-coronets kid of book; it's too quirky for such things. Will Glendon reform and find peace? The book is too idiosyncratic for that as well.


Enger's book is also a fable in that normal logic is suspended. There's even a character who simply refuses to die. Yes, what we have here is a book in which the best odds lie with the improbable. Huckleberry Finn, of course, was Mark Twain's reworking of The Odyssey and you might recall from whenever you last read any of it, that lots of spurious things occurred in it. (If you don't remember, think the Coen Brothers' take, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)


I laughed aloud many times during my reading of So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I was late to the party, but they saved me a slice of the icebox cake. In all honesty, I'm still not sure whether or not I should be ashamed of myself for liking this book so much.


Rob Weir






Undine: Myth or a Gal Wronged?

UNDINE (2020)

Directed by Christian Petzold

Bettina Böler, 90 minutes, Not-rated (brief nudity, sex)

In German/French with subtitles

★★★ ½ 



 If you'd like to try a film unlike the usual fare, the German film Undine will answer and then some. But read my comments first or you might be lost.


Undine is the main character. The is significant. An undine (or ondine) is a mythological creature that morphed into numerous folk tales. Insofar as can be determined, the ancient Greek alchemist/philosopher Paracelsus gave us the first complete view. He thought the world was composed of earth, water, air, and fire, each of which had groupings of elemental spirits misunderstood by humans. Undines were river nymphs—Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid was based upon them—that lived for a very long time. They were ultimately doomed, however, because they lack souls. The way out was to marry mortals, which conferred souls but shortened their lives. The kicker was that undines bonded for life. Do not cross one; if she says she will kill you if you leave her, be very afraid!


We meet Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) as an architecture and urban development expert lecturing at a Berlin museum. She is in a troubled relationship with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a married man, who tells her that he's breaking off their affair. Undine coldly informs Johannes that she will kill him, a threat he dismisses as histrionic. That seems to be the case, as shortly thereafter she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski). He is attracted to her and convinces her to have coffee with him. Ironically, that scene involves the explosion of a giant fish tank, an event that actually happened in Berlin in 2022. A floor full of glass, water, and dead fish gets them booted from the cafe, but they begin a relationship. Christoph is an underwater welding expert and a klutz, but he is a sweet man very much in love with Undine. He is currently repairing damaged joints on a dam on the short but deep Lingese River, which he and his diving team partner Monika (Maryam Zaree) have done before. He has several times spotted a giant catfish that he dubs “Big Gunther.”


Undine falls for Christoph, though when Johannes tells Undine he wants her back, what's gal to do? Undine is slow-paced, but quite a lot happens. Some of it seems head-scratching but it helps to remember that this is a place where folklore and filmmaking intersect. That is to say, some things stand as metaphors rather than depictions of reality. It's a clever ruse of the part of director Christian Petzold. If you think about it, all movies are artifice, so why not blend the expected and the fanciful? Likewise, why impose normal logic or explain everything? Is Undine an actual undine, or just an angry young woman with an odd name looking for love in the wrong place?


This is a film whose tension derives from its relationships and the circumstances of its characters. That's another way of saying that it holds viewers in a psychological grip rather than milking cheap thrills from action sequences. Once you give up the need for the narrative to make literal sense, you can concentrate on the performances. None are better than Beer in the title role. She is one of those actors whom the camera loves, riveting and magnetic. Each year the Berlin Film Festival doles out awards for outstanding work. Its highest honor is called the Golden Bear Grand Jury prize for the best film. Undine did not win the Golden Bear, but Paula Beer received a Silver Bear as best actress. You need not speak a word of German to understand why she won.


 Petzold made a unique and provocative film. Don't be surprised if your first reaction is that you didn’t like or get Undine. It is the sort of project that needs to settle in and it will. You will find it rattling around in your head days after you've seen it and some (but not all) things will come into sharper focus. Perhaps the film didn't need to be quite as enigmatic as it was, but it’s not necessary to decode each frame of Undine. Any spin you put on the movie is fine. It's certainly not a cookie cutter project and of that we can be grateful.


Rob Weir




Mercury Pictures Presents Too Ambitious but a Good Read




By Anthony Marra

Hogarth/Penguin Random House, 408 pages.





I adored Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, though it is what I call half of an epic. By that I mean it should have been either twice as long or have jettisoned half of its plot lines because there’s too much going on to be contained in 400 pages.


It is a film about a Hollywood studio, though not Paramount, MGM, Universal, or Twentieth Century Fox. The 1930s into the 1950s is often interpreted as a Hollywood golden age. From the standpoint of movie quality that is perhaps true, but there were obstacles to be considered such as the impact of two world wars and a little thing called the Great Depression. It wasn't so glamorous to work in the movies either. Only stars and big companies came through those years intact, and not even they were unscathed.


Mercury Pictures Presents is about a second-tier studio that didn't have surefire box office stars. (One suspects that RKO was one of Marra's inspirations; it often leaned upon Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre repertory company for acting talent.) Even in its heyday Mercury was a cut-rate concern. It was owned by two eccentric brothers, Art and Ned Feldman, who simultaneously love and despise each other; lately they opt for the latter option and engage in tit for tat games. Mercury maintains a staff that ranges from disgruntled to trapped. Its best talent is Eddie Lu, who would like to do Chekhov, but as a Chinese American he is relegated to portraying Yellow Peril types such as an evil Chinaman or a Japanese villain. Maria Legana is a resident alien and Eddie's illicit lover.* She also has a couple of maddening Italian aunts who don't understand why she's not married and continues to work in the office of Mercury Pictures. Add to the wild menagerie of characters several displaced Europeans working for bargain basement wages, a major character who literally isn't who he is, and an American gangster who runs afoul of Italian mobsters. This is merely the short list of the strange characters in a novel that mixes drama, humor, acerbic dialogue, scheming, heartbreak, delusions, and sweetness and (mostly) gets away with it.


Mercury Pictures once did moderately well. Its current fate, though, isn't on the screen, but on a battlefield pitting Artie against Ned. In the good old days, “Artie” took care of movie making in California, and Ned stayed in New York City to write checks and keep the books. Recently, though, Ned has come to California with the intention of wrecking Mercury Pictures in a grab-the-money-and-go maneuver. Should the studio fortunes pick up, Plan B is to push Artie out of the business. 


To be fair, Artie is an oddball. He keeps a rack of toupees to fit every occasion and has names for each: the Heavyweight, the Casanova, the Edison, the Mephistopheles, and so forth. Were it not for the command-by-fake-obedience acumen of Maria, Mercury Pictures wouldn't be worth a roll of used celluloid. She's so valuable that even Ned will try to blackmail her rather than let her take another job. Rest assured; she’s not the only one being extorted. 


All of this alone would have been literary gold, but Marra adds other layers. Much of the novel's action takes place in Italy, both during Mussolini's rise to power and again during World War Two. These sections involve everything from assumed identities, a stolen car, an ever-patient Italian American mother, an accidental cameraman who wants to emulate Robert Capa, and falsehoods that become truths in surprising ways. 


Marra adds even other subplots, including the construction of detailed sets to be destroyed for less than noble purposes, movie razzle dazzle, an FBI investigation, an Italian policeman, and a story about Louis Harrington, a black GI whose tale parallels that of Dorie Miller, but without Miller's heroic ending.** As you can probably tell, there are so many irons in the fire that some of them seem tacked on. Frankly, some of the novel is a mess, though credit goes to Marra that he pulls out of such moments with less damage than is done to Mercury Pictures. 


Luckily, Marra's novel has memorable characters, inspired silliness, labyrinthine backstabbing plotting, and shifting winds that make an enjoyable read even if you get lost. If you do , my best advice is to take the lead from Vincent, he who would be Robert Capa. He made an analogy to between one of Capo's photos and Mercury Pictures: “The less you saw, the better it looked.”


Rob Weir


* Illicit because the laws in many parts of the country forbade interracial relationships.

** Miller was a black ship’s cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun during Pearl Harbor when its white gunner was killed.