Remember Ben Clayton
By Stephen Harrigan
Reviewed by Patricia O’Sullivan
After learning that his only child, Ben, has died on a World War I battlefield in France, Lamar Clayton’s grief drives him to come face to face with the haunting memories of his childhood. Lamar commissions a statue of Ben, one he’ll set on a high ridge of his Texas ranch that overlooks the valley below. This was Ben’s favorite spot, and lately his own. But Lamar does not count on the sculptor needing to get to know Ben in order to capture the boy’s likeness in clay. The sculptor, Frances “Gil” Gilheany, is an aging genius, but relentlessly ambitious and invasive. As Gil uncovers more about Ben, Lamar finds himself envious that this stranger from New York could understand Ben dead better than Lamar did while Ben was alive.
Remember Ben Claytonis a thoroughly engaging novel that breaks several rules of modern writing, but breaks them beautifully. Much of what occurs in the story are memories and reflections of the four main characters, Gil, the sculptor, Lamar, the rancher, Gil’s only child, Maureen, and Arthur Fry, Ben’s friend, whose wounds compel him to remain in France rebuilding the war-shattered countryside. Shifting point of view and “telling” rather than showing are techniques frequently discouraged by literary agents and writing teachers. However, Harrigan pulls off the narratives in an intimate and compelling manner, giving his readers much to think about, but not enough that they fully know these characters, not even at the end of the novel. In this way, the characters and their memories stay with the reader long after they finish reading.
Gil and Lamar’s parallel stories provide structure without seeming contrived. Both men are widowers with one child and a shameful secret they keep from that child. Gil and Lamar are also workaholics, taking solace in being consumed by the present moment in order to keep memories of the past at bay.
Harrigan could easily have written a story about overbearing and uncompromising men who realize in their old age how their behavior has damaged their families over the years, and it would have been a good tale. But Remember Ben Clayton is so much more than this story because of Maureen and Arthur. Their subplots are engaging on their own, but also in that they illuminate the regrets that torment Gil and Lamar. Maureen is desperate for independence and the chance to make her mark as a sculptor in her own right, after spending her youth as her father’s assistant. Arthur, on the other hand, is desperate for anonymity and a quiet life in the French countryside after losing so much in the war.
At the heart of the novel is Ben Clayton. Harrigan reveals Ben slowly, peeling back layers with each character’s reflection on the dead soldier. To Lamar, Ben is the son he failed. To Gil, Ben is the subject of what will be his greatest sculpture. Arthur remembers Ben as the friend who helped him brave the battlefields of France. And for Maureen, Ben is the catalyst that helps her understand the dysfunction of her relationship with her father and gives her the courage to change it.
Harrigan’s writing is full of the kind of details typical of a firsthand account: Gil and Maureen expertly shaping clay against a wire model, Lamar scooping worms from the stinking wound of a bull, Arthur carefully clipping barbed wire traps in war-ravaged fields. Harrigan transports his readers to each scene, as well as inside the tormented minds of his characters.
Remember Ben Clayton will be a favorite of readers of historical fiction, southern literature, family drama, and just good storytelling.