The men in “Black River,’’ S.M. Hulse’s debut novel of modern-day redemption in the West, are terse and grave. The hero is a retired prison guard named Wesley Carver; he is “one of those Montana men whose mouths hardly move when they speak, for whom words are precious things they are loath to give up.” Wesley and his stepson, Dennis, have exchanged “maybe ten minutes of conversation in eighteen years.”
The book opens with the death of someone more talkative, Wesley’s wife and Dennis’s mother, Claire. When the family lived together in the small Montana town of Black River, Claire shouldered the conversational duties at dinner each night, choreographing the topics carefully to avoid any confrontation between her husband and her teenage son. But the males fought anyway, and a particularly bad night ended with a brandished handgun and a broken nose.
The altercation prompted Wesley and Claire to move to Spokane, leaving a 16-year-old Dennis behind. The main story begins after Claire’s death, but interspersed sections of flashback from Claire’s point of view gradually reveal some of the dramatic details that frame the narrative.
Wesley returns to Black River more to scatter Claire’s ashes than to attempt a reconciliation with Dennis, but the possibility hovers at the edges of their clipped, angry exchanges.
Wesley also returns for another reason: to attend the parole hearing of an inmate who tortured him during a prison riot 20 years earlier. Veiled allusions to an excruciating ordeal punctuate the chapters from Wesley’s point of view, and the cryptic references in the text mirror his psychological suppression of the episode. All the gruesome particulars emerge only by the end of the book, and Hulse’s withholding of the trauma is artful and effective.
Wesley and Dennis soon find the words to inflame old angers — “I sure as hell don’t know why Mom wasted her life on you” — but they also share occasional moments of gruff, muted affection. Mostly, however, they displace any emotion onto ambient features of the environment — an old horse, the looming mountains, Claire’s memory, a troubled teenage boy interested in horses and fiddle music.
Before his fingers were slowly broken and irreparably damaged during the riot, Wesley played violin in an old-time and bluegrass band. Having lost his music and his wife, he’s deprived of his two deep loves in life. Hulse gracefully conjures both the bewilderment of recent bereavement and the lingering pain of older memories. In one scene Wesley stands perplexed in an aisle of the supermarket, trying in vain to remember the type of dish soap Claire favored. It’s a small but poignant moment; he feels this mundane forgetting almost as a betrayal of her memory. In another scene, he attends a harvest festival where his band used to play and watches as new musicians do something he no longer can.
Hulse evokes the Montana landscape in lyrical, vivid prose. Afternoon clouds settle onto the peaks surrounding Black River “like slow-churning froth,” and old logging roads “crossed the bare slopes like neat surgical scars.” At times, however, the lyricism undermines the plausibility of characters. Wesley often thinks in homely sentence fragments, so when grand phrases suddenly burst into a passage from his perspective — “the fiddle’s true voice filling the canyon, building and rising with the mountains, inhabiting the air” — the effect is incongruous.
The tale flirts with melodrama at points, and the second half of the book becomes especially overwrought. There are many scenes of pacing, cursing, and yelling followed by unconvincing moments of forgiveness and harmony. Hulse’s men are the tough and terse stuff of Western archetypes, but they also weep tenderly and touch each other’s shoulders with tentative affection.
Such divergent tendencies aren’t inherently impossible, but the characters veer between extremes so rapidly that it sometimes feels contrived.
Certain stylistic tics also become grating through overuse. The dramatic repetition of a single word, for instance, is a device best used sparingly. The second half of the book also reflects the common but unfortunate tendency to confuse the accumulation of dire incidents with genuine pathos. Hulse is a gifted wordsmith with promising dramatic instincts. But the novel’s finest moments are in the spare elisions of its first hundred pages, not the maudlin climaxes of its ending.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.