Forrest Gander’s novel As a Friend may be slim–only 106 pages–but it still packs a lot of punch. The book is about Les, a land surveyor and writer. Les is one of those charismatic people whom everyone loves and wants to be around. He’s the kind of guy who makes you feel like a bigger and better person while in his presence than you are when you are alone. He’s the kind of person who has an aura and seems wiser beyond his years.
The book is broken up into four sections. The first is the most intense description of birth I have ever read. My heart was pounding and I was out of breath by the end of it. It is, of course, the birth of Les. Born to an unwed teenage mother, he is whisked away as soon as he is born.
The second section is told from Clay’s point of view. Clay is a surveyor too and works with Les. Clay is in love with Les and Les is completely oblivious. Because Clay never tells Les how he feels, Les is never able to satisfy Clay’s desire. Clay’s desire grows and grows until it becomes too much to bear. Clay thinks,
He had some kind of juju that turned me into a manikin. At best, I was wounded by every encounter with him. And I began to think, leaning my elbows on the table, […] that I would only heal if he were harmed.
And harm Les he does.
Les is married but his wife lives on a farm several hour’s drive away. Les, in town, lives with Sarah. Sarah knows Les is married but Les has told her it is all over between them. But nearly every weekend Les goes to visit his wife who has no idea that Les and Sarah are lovers because Les told her that Sarah was his lesbian housemate. Sometimes Les has to travel “for work,” and cheats on both his wife and Sarah. It is almost as though, given the circumstances of his birth, he has a longing and an emptiness that cannot be filled.
So Clay hurts Les the only way he knows how. He betrays him. He calls Les’s wife and tells her that Sarah is not a lesbian housemate. Les goes home one evening and finds his wife and Sarah waiting for him. Neither of them are happy. The night does not end well.
Part three off the book belongs to Sarah and her grief. This portion of the book was almost as intense as the beginning. The section has few paragraphs of any length, most of it is told in short sentences that are sometimes like sobs. It is raw and bleak and hopeless. And it isn’t the big event that caused the grief that hurts so much as it is the small daily reminders that the person for whom you cared so much is longer going to walk though your door.
The final and shortest section of the book belongs to Les who only ever wanted “to be consequent to my friends.”
Gander has written several books of poetry and his poetry shines through into his prose. Sometimes with such short books there is a feeling like something has been left out, that not enough of the story has been told. That is not the case here. If anything I would wish the final five pages that belong to Les were not there. I am not sure why since these final pages bring a sort of closure, but it is almost as if Les so permeates the rest of the book I didn’t want him to have his own voice. He is a much more powerful character through the eyes of others.
As a Friend is Gander’s first novel. I hope he plans on writing a second.