Stephen Harrigan’s Remember Ben Clayton is a brilliant piece of writing. I use five consistent characteristics of good fiction to measure my reaction to a novel: fully developed characters, intriguing plot, pacing that matches plot, compelling prose, and realistic setting. If Remember Ben Clayton were a baseball player, it would, in fact, be one of those rare “five tool” players (based there on average, power, speed, throwing, and defense) because it delivers on all five of the qualities I most admire in a work of fiction.
The book is filled with interesting characters. Ben Clayton, the title character, grew up on a remote Texas ranch under the care of a demanding father and a longtime housekeeper. Lamar Clayton, Ben’s grieving father, is a man filled with secrets and regrets, the worst of which directly impacted his relationship with Ben. Francis “Gil” Gilheaney is a respected sculptor whose stubborn pride has forced him to accept new commissions outside of New York City because he has offended that city’s artistic power structure, effectively burning his bridges there. Maureen is Gil’s adult daughter, a never-married woman who has devoted her own life to helping her father in his work. In addition, there is a young soldier, horribly scarred and deformed from battle, who has chosen to stay in France at the end of the war rather than face his friends and family as he is now. He, too, plays a key role in Stephen Harrigan’s story.
Lamar Clayton wants to place a memorial to his son on a remote plateau to which the boy would often ride when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. Ben’s body is still buried in France near the World War I battlefield on which he died, and Lamar hopes to find comfort in seeing a likeness of Ben and his horse where the boy spent so much time. Gil, who now lives in San Antonio, accepts the commission and soon comes to believe that the piece has the potential to be the best, and most genuinely artistic, work he has ever done – something that will be admired long after his own death even though very few people will ever actually see it. Maureen is there to help in the research and construction of the piece’s several stages (a fascinating process in itself that Harrigan walks the reader through in some detail).
Things get complicated when Gil and Maureen, as part of their research into the character of young Ben Clayton, come to sense that there is much more to Ben’s relationship with his father than Lamar is willing to share. Gil and Maureen, believing that they need to solve the mystery surrounding that relationship if Gil is truly to capture the essence of his subject, begin to pick at the scabs of Lamar’s guilt. They will be shocked by the heartrending truth they discover about the Claytons – and about themselves.
Rated at: 5.0