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Writer Martin Linton is at a low point in his life. He "hadn't particularly wanted to die, but neither had he particularly wanted to live. The desire to live had been there--very strongly there--but after his operation it had vanished. He had no regrets, no fears, no wish to come back to former friends; he was just tired and content that it all should be ended." His marriage to Stella having ended in divorce so she can re-marry years earlier is, Linton muses, "a tragic mistake..." In "an apathetic mood" Linton goes to Ballycastle with its "long stretch of beach, the wide expanse of grassy hummocks running inland, the dark steep cliffs..." It is there that Linton confronts his greatest fear: "He had never felt less like writing in his life. His writing days, he fancied, were over." In "a morbid state of mind," Linton concludes "he had written himself out. It was an ugly, unpleasant phrase, but the fact was less pleasant still."
In a "strange coincidence" Linton comes across a beautiful "fair-haired boy," eighteen years old, "in a hallow... between the sand-dunes and the sea" reading "Linton's own first novel." The chance encounter leads to an exchange of greetings and hesitant conversation. Linton doesn't tell the boy he is the author of the book that he is reading, but instead tells the youth that he knows Linton as well as a number of other writers. The boy, taking interest in the older man, perks up and eventually confesses that he, too, hopes to be a writer someday and is working on his first novel.
Their discussion about writers and writing revives Linton's spirits like nothing has for years.
Neither Martin Linton nor the boy, Brian Westby, realize the reality of their serendipitous meeting--the reunion of a father and son. Bucking his mother's wishes that he go into business, Brian is determined to become a writer... he has to write. Lonely, the youth "was perfectly aware that [others]... regarded him as peculiar." His step-father dead and never having known his father, the writer Martin Linton, meeting the older man on the beach at Ballycastle where he and his mother and sister are staying for a month is an epiphany.
Thus Forrest Reid's thirteenth novel, Brian Westby (1934) begins on a somewhat improbable note, but one that will have a significant impact and result in lasting consequences for the two main characters. For Reid Brian Westby (which by all appearances is a very autobiographical novel) contains a common theme to be found in many of Reid's novels: the friendship as well as the mentoring between an older and younger man (one that paralleled Reid's relationship with writer Stephen Gilbert).
Reid, although maintaining a third person narrator throughout Brian Westby, creatively alternates chapters between his two main characters, Linton and Westby, during which he reveals their thoughts, often of the very same scene. Readers learn that Brian is, indeed, Martin's own son--a secret kept from him from Stella, well before Linton discovers the truth once he learns the boy's given name. Reid beautifully handles Linton's dilemma: his fears, worries, and contrasting desire to tell the boy the truth. The fashion in which Linton finally reveals his identity to Brian seems more than appropriate, if understated, given the fact that Linton is an accomplished writer trying to help along the struggling, amateur Westby and the two toy with the idea of writing a story together.
By the publication of Brian Westby Reid and Gilbert had been friends for three years. Given the fact that Reid is telling the story of an estranged father and son reunited, Reid's possible romantic interest in writer Stephen Gilbert is underplayed in Brian Westby if, for no other reason, than not to suggest any kind of incestuous entanglement. Equally, the fact that they are father and son also lends credence to the sudden, almost mystical bond between the two men. When Linton discovers the truth about the youth's identity, Linton admits, "...if he had believed in a beneficent power bent on gratifying the deepest and most secret longing of his heart, could he have hoped for this this: --yet it had happened."
Reid includes in the novel extensive comments about and advice on the art of writing and Linton's work--the kind of advice he no doubt gave to the young writer, Stephen Gilbert, which eventually helped Gilbert get published.
Reid includes many scenes and comments in the novel that appear to include the kinds of interactions and feelings held by Reid toward Gilbert (and Gilbert toward Reid as seen through Reid's eyes), including some rather honest self-assessment by Reid.
In the end, however, Reid is writing a novel, not an expose about his relationship with Stephen Gilbert. Once Brian knows the truth about Linton's identity, there are decisions to be made--by Brian, Linton, and his mother, Stella. Although twenty years have passed since their marriage ended, Stella proves unchanged--as intolerant and stubborn as ever before. The inevitable confrontation and showdown between Linton and his former wife is powerfully written without melodrama, without excess, but with potent emotion. Equally riveting and telling is a later scene with Linton standing in the dark (both physically as well as not knowing what has passed between mother and son) and in the rain outside of the Westby residence, watching the light in Brian's bedroom until the light is extinguished.
The conclusion of Brian Westby is heart-rending and haunting and true to the spirit of the novel from its very first page to its last word. It is a very honest work of incredible artistic achievement.
Valancourt Books has served up a masterpiece by re-releasing this to the public. The Introduction by Andrew Doyle explores the relationship between Reid and Gilbert and the autobiographical aspects of Brian Westby.