By Scott Gloden
Simon & Schuster, April 2014
The Steady Running of the Hour is Justin Go’s debut novel, one of generational love, mountainous pursuit, wartime consequence, and the holdout of hope. Yet, what’s most intriguing about such a hefty line-up of topics, are the challenges Go confronts when expressing determination from era to era.
Tristan Campbell, a newly graduated Art History major is summoned from California to the ends of Europe in a quest to prove his claim to a massive inheritance. Due the stipulation of a lost relative’s will, Tristan, as the closest heir, has only six weeks to prove his great-grandmother’s relation to the acclaimed Ashley Walsingham, before the trust elapses and is divided elsewhere.
With keen intent, Go presents the histories that explain Tristan’s possible ancestry, and binds it to Tristan’s search in present-day, carefully weaving the stories so that these parts remain in tact, and do not move ahead of one another, unless properly belayed.
In one swoop, he gates us to a world where we watch a young man run on nothing and another’s conquest over nature and war, signaling to us a question posed to Ashley early on: “Which do you suppose takes a man furthest in life—talent, judgment or persistence?” The answer, which the story continues to confront with redolence: “Which, indeed.”
However, while the premises are stimulating, the narrative is prone to numerous missteps. The relationships are developed with a flatness that supersedes cliché, so that even when Go succeeds in entering a character into an original position and setting—which he does quite well—the clumsy interactions of the men and women we follow cause us to lose interest.
Now, it is admittedly the context we occupy, which permits conversation to be exceptionally mawkish, but depending on where in the story we find ourselves, the “shants” and “sighs” and desperate emoting become distracting; and, more obtrusively, they undercut opportunities for us to dig deeper into anyone’s view. At other points, characters, which are inevitably written in to provide the story some convenience, are manifested with such obviousness that it unwinds the believability.
What Go manages, though, is an intelligent structure, and a suck-you-in-circumstance readers can’t deny. Even in describing war, the brief segments he writes do not feel jarring or poorly transitioned or sappy. Rather, they feed us well, and raise curiosity about how any an action or object can be a tunnel to the future:
The mud is everything. It is contagious, the destiny and endpoint of all mankind. The mud coats and replaces all things until men no longer believe in anything else, until they can stare with wonder at any surface that has survived, clean and immaculate. The frontispiece of a King James Bible. A silk scarf, faintly scented with perfume. If the soldiers take out these objects to marvel at, they will also become tainted, so they preserve them inside their tunics or haversacks so long as they can.
Another fascinating feature of the story has to do with Go’s background. An undergraduate at Berkeley, with a graduate degree in University College London, he truly seems to have touched the same curves of building and plots of cement Tristan has. In many ways, it provides a travelogue aspect to the story, which authenticates the plot. At times, it even feels as if this was a work truly experienced in the century it spans.
The Steady Running is not arguably a good book; it is a good book. Yet, there seems to be something more Justin Go is capable of making us experience, which means this might just be the precursor to something unmistakably thoughtful. If nothing else, it feels ensured and readable enough to make a run at the big screen.