By December 10, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

SUNDOWN, YELLOW MOON

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Sundown, Yellow Moon by Larry Watson.  Random House, 2008. 

Perhaps one of the most frustrating types of fiction to read is one which utilizes unreliable first person narration.  What are we to believe as readers as the character dissembles the truth?  As far as that goes, what is the nature of truth?   

Is there a better hook to have for a book discussion? 

In this novel by Watson, our unnamed narrator is a high school aged boy who lives in
Bismarck, North Dakota in 1961.  The narrator’s best friend is Gene Stoddard.  As the novel opens, Gene’s father Raymond has just walked into the state capitol building and assassinated the popular state senator Monty Burnham.  After that act, and a brief encounter with the two boys, Raymond hangs himself in the family’s garage, leaving the carnage of his actions for others to explain.
 

Central to the story here is how everyone obsesses on Raymond’s reason for committing this horrendous act.  Gene suffers the most, as he was not only the one to discover the body, but he is also the one most branded in the community by his father’s actions.  Becoming the son of a murderer, he is tolerated but not accepted and struggles with his inability to say why his father did what he did.  His relationship with his girlfriend Marie, and with all his male companions, always seems to relate back to that one fateful day. 

Marie is a major portion of the book.  She is desperately in love with Gene and wants to save him from the memory of his father’s actions.  Meanwhile, the author is as obsessed with Marie as he is with the murder.  While these three characters dance around each other, it becomes evident that truth will continue to be an issue whether it is which character is in love with the other, who is responsible for a pregnancy, or who loves Gene the most.   

On the day of the assassination, after calling his sister Marcia, Gene called the family lawyer to ask for help.  The lawyer, the narrator’s father, is the first to arrive on the scene.  From this contact he develops a lifelong obsession with Raymond’s death and his endless pursuit of the reason eventually drives him from his family and his community.   

It also affects the officer in charge of the investigation, Lee Mauer.  Integrating himself into the neighborhood by becoming the lawyer’s best friend, he eventually begins to do handy work around the dead man’s house.  Soon, he is a replacement for the dead man in the life of the widow Alma Stoddard.   

While the narrator claims to be Gene’s best friend, time will show that this may never have been the truth.  The narrator tells us up front, “The motives of others are often understood by reference back to the self.”   

This whole story is told decades after the incident, yet it is evident that the narrator is still searching for the truth to this pivotal event in his life.  Throughout the book, the narrator reveals possible scenarios by reprinting short stories he has published in obscure magazines that fictionalize the main characters from the Bismarck tragedy.  He speculates from motives that include the spectacular lifelong jealousy over a love for Alma shared by both men or a mundane possible corrupt relationship due to their joint work for the state.   

This novel works on many levels.  It is a coming of age novel, it is an unrequited love story, it is a novel of obsessive behaviors, it is a novel of grief, and it is a mystery.   

The reality of his narrative is that while he appears to be capable of seeing the obsessions of others, the narrator is incapable of judging his own behaviors with the same care.  To the reader, it appears that his life is a wasteland of excuses for never pushing past this one incident and getting on with his life.  He is so consumed by the story he tells us that he cannot even be named, having lost his whole identity to this one pivotal day in his youth.   

After reading the entire novel, the reader will find that the answer to Raymond’s motive is never revealed.  That leaves a book discussion leader with two great questions:  Why did Raymond kill Monty?  Why did Raymond kill himself? 

Or make that three, of course, if you ask what is the nature of truth? 

 

 

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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