Sundown, Yellow Moon (Watson)

Book Reviews
The unnamed, not-entirely-reliable narrator of this novel of obsession from Watson (In a Dark Time) aims his imaginative faculties at discovering, through fiction, the truth of an incident from his adolescence in Bismarck, N.Dak. In trying to figure out why, in 1961, his best friend's father shot a state senator and then hanged himself, the writer tries out a number of different scenarios via short fictions and simple speculation, including mental illness, romantic rivalry, a festering real estate swindle and a looming corruption scandal. The fictions-within-a-fiction are a clever conceit, but ponderous discussion of the pieces weakens it. More problematic is that the specifics of the larger tale aren't engineered to go as far as Watson wants to take them. The book's greatest strength, alongside its palpable sense of place, is its rich period detail—including the inescapability of cigarette smoking, in which nearly every character hungrily indulges. But even the narrator's own mother, initially absorbed by the case, loses interest in it rather swiftly, so it should be no surprise that the relentless analysis of minutiae comes to feel like harping.
Publishers Weekly


This novel is a literary murder mystery/coming of age tale/writer's memoir/love story that, perhaps understandably, struggles under the weight of its ambitions. The narrator of the novel is a successful fiction writer looking back on a traumatic event from his youth that has become seminal to his life and writing. This event is a murder and suicide: his best friend's father-a steady, solid, suburban dad-shot and killed an old acquaintance, a popular state senator, and then returned home and took his own life. Both young men are baffled and disturbed by this violence, and the novel examines the lingering damage it causes. Watson (Montana 1948) is at his best exploring the grief and confusion these events create for the two teen-age friends. Watson is less effective, however, as he moves past this event to the love story and the passages that link this event to the fictional narrator's literary work. The interior life of his characters becomes less convincing, and the exploration of how personal experience is transformed into art is, unfortunately, not fully realized.
Patrick Sullivan - Library Journal


A writer scours the past and his own false starts in an ultimately futile quest to explain the 1961 assassination of a charismatic North Dakota legislator. In his latest return to the Northern plains, Watson (Orchard, 2003, etc.) flouts the taboo against writer protagonists, no doubt in the interests of structure. Musing over a compendium of his earlier attempts to explicate the central drama of his life, the nameless writer-narrator recalls a January Wednesday in Bismarck, 1961, when he walked home from high school with his best friend, Gene Stoddard. At Gene's house, Gene's father Ray has, uncharacteristically, returned early from his job as a state employee at the nearby North Dakota capitol building. The narrator later learns that Ray shot, point-blank at the capitol, his own boyhood friend Monty Burnham, a state senator with Washington ambitions, then hurried home to hang himself in the family garage, leaving behind a confession to the crime but no inkling as to motive. Approaching the incident from the points of view of both pivotal and peripheral players, the narrator dispenses creative writing tips and quotes stories he's published in obscure literary journals. Several speculative vendetta scenarios emerge. Monty and Alma, Ray's beautiful wife, were high-school sweethearts, and rekindled an affair after her marriage, possibly during World War II, possibly during a high-school reunion, casting doubt on the paternity of the Stoddards' daughter. Monty bamboozled Ray's dying father into selling a beloved lake cabin, depriving Ray of his inheritance. Monty embroiled Ray, who works in purchasing, in a kickback scheme involving the state auto fleet, a scandal on the brink of exposure. Although everyone else, including his parents, has put the trauma to rest, the narrator has not. His obsession is complicated by his estrangement from Gene, and his (lifelong) infatuation with Gene's girlfriend, Marie. The soft-focus ending is only a momentary respite from the novel's preoccupation-the persistent, agonizing allure of the unknowable.
Kirkus Reviews

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