'As Good As Gone': Family drama confronts both external, internal conflict

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Larry Watson’s ninth novel, “As Good as Gone,” keeps his readers in familiar territory: the American west in the mid-1960s. It’s a charming story about the privilege — and pitfalls — of adhering to a code of conduct in a changing time.

Calvin Sidey is an old, outside dog who put himself out to pasture, so to speak, after the death of his beautiful French wife. He’s still living in a derelict trailer on the outskirts of Gladstone, still eating cold supper out of a can, when his adult son stops by for a favor: Could Calvin come to town and watch his two children, ages 17 and 11, while he takes their mother to Missoula for an operation?

To everyone’s surprise, Calvin agrees and settles into the family cellar, unpacking his meager suitcase and emergency pack: “an unopened pint of Canadian Club whiskey, a box of ammunition, and a Colt .45 semi-automatic, the sidearm issued to soldiers in the First World War.”

And while the operation in Missoula is certainly a gripping plot point, soon our attention turns to calamities on the homefront: young Will’s struggle to break from a group of friends who have grown increasingly violent; 17-year-old Ann’s attempt to distance herself from a boyfriend who has turned dangerous. All this alongside Calvin’s growing affair with the neighbor woman, and his internal struggles to navigate a house — and a town — that used to be his own.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. Maybe too much. And while the ending rushes to neatly tie up so many loose ends, throughout it all, Watson does what he does best: explore three very different men — Calvin, his son, his grandson — and their changing perspectives on morality, justice and love.

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