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Originally published Friday, July 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Enger brothers take on Shakespeare and the Wild West

New works from brothers Lin and Leif Enger: "Undiscovered Country," a retelling of "Hamlet" set in Minnesota; and "So Brave, Young, and Handsome," a colorful tale set in the Wild West.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Lin and Leif Enger will read from their books at these area locations:

• Leif and Lin Enger will read together at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-924-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

• Leif Enger will read solo at 6:30 p.m. next Friday at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com). He will also read at noon July 12 at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).

Lin and Leif Enger probably learned the importance and pleasure of stories on those dark Minnesota nights when they were growing up, because they both have the knack for telling good ones. They grew up in Osakis, Minn., and for a time collaborated on mysteries about a former major-league-baseball player in reclusive retirement in the north woods.

Leif was a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio for nearly 20 years, and Lin teaches writing in the MFA program at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Most comparisons of talented siblings are odious, but it must be said that the Enger boys are each and both a treat for readers.

A take on "Hamlet"

With a combination of gritty realism and poetic landscape portraiture, Lin Enger has brought a retelling of "Hamlet" to life in "Undiscovered Country" (Little, Brown, 308 pp., $23.99). He hasn't cloned the story, but has used the central events: a man is dead, his brother is accused of murdering him, and there is a relationship between the brother and the man's wife that preceded his death. The elements combine to create a new story of betrayal, adolescent confusion and loyalty.

Jesse Matson and his father hunt deer in the northern Minnesota woods. They are on such an outing on a fateful day when, situated on separate tree stands a few blocks apart, Jesse hears a gunshot. He knows intuitively that something about that shot is not right. When there is no second shot — no kill shot — he runs to where his father is and finds him with the top of his head literally blown off. For no good reason, almost all concerned judge it to be not an accident, but a suicide.

Harold Matson, Jesse's father, is mayor of the town, judged to be a good guy by all but his brother, Clay. Harold has "tied his reelection for mayor to a plan that would ... put up thirty or so inexpensive houses" which would be sold with no down payment to low-income families.

The homes are to be built at the present site of the town's trailer park where Clay is the manager. It's a job that Harold got for him and the only one he has been able to hold onto, so he is furious that he will now lose it. Grounds for a family donnybrook, but grounds for murder? Clay also has a longtime resentment over the fact that Harold's wife dated him first and left him for Harold. Fuel for teenage angst, but fuel enough for murder?

The only person who thinks so is Jesse, and he is absolutely convinced of Clay's guilt. Jesse has a few visitations from his father's ghost, just to keep the "Hamlet" theme alive, urging him to take action. That device is the weakest part of the book because Jesse believes that he has it all figured out without any help from his father. The only person Jesse can confide in is his girlfriend, Christine Montez, who knows the whole story according to Jesse, ghost apparitions and all. She tries to save him from himself. The reader must decide if, in the end, justice is done.

Life in the Wild West

Leif Enger's first novel, "Peace Like a River," wound up on many best books of 2001 lists. Although "Peace" was set in the 1960s, it felt as if it belonged in an earlier era.

Now, we have that story. "So Brave, Young, and Handsome" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 287 pp., $24) is set in 1915 and celebrates the last gasp of the Old West, when cowboys have to deal with flivvers and outlaws with Pinkertons.

Monte Becket, a former Minnesota post-office employee, has written a well-received novel, which brought him fame and just enough fortune to quit the P.O. Trying to repeat that feat is tormenting him when the story opens.

He has promised his wife, Susannah, "I shall write one thousand words a day until another book is finished." His son, Redstart, knows of this and asks him: "How many words today, Papa?" The problem is not that Monte is a slacker; indeed, in six years he has written enough words for seven novels. It's just that the words don't hang together in any significant way. (Enger has intimated that he is not unfamiliar with Monte's problem.)

One day Monte spies Glendon Hale, "rowing upstream through the ropy mists of the Cannon River." Hale rows standing up in a home-built boat, a dodgy proposition at best, and Monte has a powerful hankering to make this man's acquaintance. He does, and is forever changed because of it.

Glendon is a man who needs to expiate for past sins, among them leaving his wife, Blue, to follow the ways of the outlaw. He invites Monte to join him as he travels to Mexico to search for her. Susannah encourages him to go on the adventure, understanding that it's either that, or admit that he is no longer a novelist and go back to the post office.

From here on, the story becomes a picaresque romp full of many-splendored characters, including denizens of a Wild West show and a former Pinkerton, Charles Siringo, who pursues Glendon and Monte tirelessly. The crux of the novel is the curious fact that when Glendon and Monte become separated and Monte is held captive by Charles — for no good reason — he has many opportunities to escape and doesn't do it. Monte is having the time of his life. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to a Western saga of grand proportions. All it wants is a smoky campfire, bad camp coffee, and a little Bull Durham to make the picture complete.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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