In Montana writer Larry Watson’s new novel, “As Good as Gone,” a man with a dark past returns to his former hometown, shaking up the lives of the residents there.

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‘As Good as Gone’

by Larry Watson

Algonquin, 400 pp., $26.95

A lone stranger comes to town, a hardened man slow to speech but quick to action who is forced to take matters into his own hands in Larry Watson’s swift and satisfying “As Good As Gone,” the latest in a long line of high-plains dramas stretching back to his celebrated 1993 title “Montana, 1948.”

The year is 1963, and when Bill Sidey must take his wife, Marjorie, to Missoula for a major surgery, he asks his dour, estranged father Calvin to come look after their children, Ann and Will. Decades earlier, Calvin abandoned his life as one of the movers and shakers of Gladstone, Mont., when his wife and Bill’s mother died in a car accident during a visit to her native France.

Since then he has taken up the Spartan existence of an itinerant ranch hand, living off by himself far from the soft ways of townfolk. Pressed by his son, Calvin reluctantly agrees to return to a town where he is dimly rumored to have killed a man, or was it two? What Calvin can’t know is just what kind of fresh trouble awaits him there, for all is not well in the Sidey household.

Hectored by cruel bullies who are pressuring him into helping them spy on his 17-year-old sister, sensitive young Will is swiftly approaching a breaking point, harboring elaborate revenge fantasies that threaten to become real. The comely Ann is also being stalked by her ex-boyfriend, a menacing juvenile delinquent who follows her in his big black hot rod.

On top of these simmering domestic conflicts, his son Bill has also dumped some messy unfinished business on Calvin’s lap, having served an eviction notice on a notoriously violent local Indian named Lonnie Black Pipe. But trouble follows Bill as the surgery in Missoula turns out to be less routine than anticipated. Suspense builds rapidly as the reader is cycled through these mounting crises, wondering how the sudden presence of the formidable Calvin will affect their outcomes.

We don’t have long to wait. Beverly, a neighboring widow, watches through her window as the fearsome Calvin has a showdown in the alley with the owners of an Irish setter digging through Calvin’s trash cans. Soon Calvin will blow through Beverly’s life as well, like a sudden rain in the parched midsummer heat.

In the virile, enigmatic character of Calvin, Watson both indulges in and reworks the romantic myth of the American cowboy in ways reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s “The Brave Cowboy” or Larry McMurtry’s “Horseman, Pass By.” He is a man capable of seemingly anything except sticking around, destined to be a catalyst for other people’s stories, but with no resolution to his own.

The wistful territory covered here will be familiar to Watson’s fans. A repressed little town on the plains, uncomfortably poised between the old West and the new. Shameful secrets and penned up passions that flash like heat lighting on the horizon of a brooding sky. A master of spare, economical storytelling, Watson sweeps us up in a captivating family drama that departs as quickly as it came, leaving us gratified yet hungry for more.