A Frenchman visits a backwoods Oregon bar.
When the French narrator of Montalbetti’s (Western, 2009) latest novel arrives in Oregon, it isn’t clear what he’s doing there. Nor do his purposes ever become clear. “What was I thinking back then? Nothing in particular, I guess,” he tells us. “A chaotic mix of opposing sensations that I surrendered to, waiting for them to subside and vanish.” He stays in a motel and makes nightly visits to a run-down bar, where he meets a handful of men whose stories he gradually gleans. There’s Colter, who lost his house, wife, and family after losing his job. There’s Harry Dean, who works a farm where one day a visitor arrives, retracing the steps of Louis and Clark’s expedition. There’s Moses, who runs the bar and has hung behind the counter a photograph of himself as a frightened child. Their stories precede an act of violence, at the end, that the narrator theorizes was engendered by their surroundings: the ocean, “a furious, uncontrollable presence, an endless display of unfathomable anger” against which “they were powerless.” Montalbetti’s narrator rhapsodizes at length, throughout the novel, about that ocean—but those rhapsodies never quite convince. Nor do the characters. For a book about the sharing of stories, this one is strangely silent: the only voice we hear is the narrator’s, and though he talks a lot, we don’t learn much. His chatty asides (“So, as I was saying,” “I’ll get to him in a minute,” and so on) are more annoying than they are charming. Montalbetti’s intention might be, like de Tocqueville’s, to elucidate American life, to provide a kind of gloss. If so, she doesn’t achieve it. Neither her characters nor her setting are convincingly American. Nor does her ocean bear the weight of this narrative.
Sacrificing clarity for a kind of lyricism, this meditation on American life and culture fails to convince.