‘The Signal Flame’ glows with the vivid rendering of life experienced
Andrew Krivák’s remarkable, National Book Award-nominated debut novel, “The Sojourn,’’ told the story of Jozef Vinich, an American boy born of Slovak immigrants, who returned to the old country with his father and served as a sharpshooter in World War I. A coming-of-age tale, it centered on the relationship between father and son and evoked the horrors of trench warfare in supple, powerful prose. Krivák’s highly anticipated second novel, “The Signal Flame,’’ is a quieter affair, but the long shadow of war, its power to alter forever the course of an individual life, still lies at its heart.
It picks up the Vinich story in 1972 with Jozef’s funeral. After the war, he returned to the United States, settled in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, started a business, and raised a family. “The Signal Flame’’ depicts a year in the life of those he left behind: his widowed daughter, Hannah; his adult grandson, Bo Konar; and his good friend Father Rovnaváha, the parish priest. Absent from the scene is Jozef’s younger grandson, Sam, a soldier missing in action in Vietnam.
The question of Sam’s fate is central to this eloquent, sensitive novel, but it’s one Krivák doesn’t attempt to answer. He is more interested in how Sam’s absence affects the lives of those left behind, including his pregnant fiancée, Ruth.
Krivák is a patient writer, and “The Signal Flame’’ demands equal patience of the reader. He is less interested in moving the story forward than in understanding how things got to be the way they are. To that end, he devotes considerable attention to a series of long-ago real estate deals that left Jozef a comfortable landowner and created enmity between his family and Ruth’s.
All of this matters. “The Signal Flame’’ is concerned with legacies, with what is inherited: land, memories, family lore. For the Vinich/Konar clan, a disproportionate share of those stories involve loss. There is the accidental shooting death of Bo’s father and no fewer than three fatal car crashes, one involving multiple fatalities. Dogs and chickens are not safe. For a novel with a small cast of characters, it’s quite a body count and in less skilled hands might have resulted in melodrama. But Krivák is an extraordinarily good writer who understands something about human sorrow. A minor character who lost his only son in World War I “carried his grief like an empty watch chain that he pulled from his pocket hourly and seemed surprised to find the watch no longer there.”
Writing a novel is, at bottom, a sleight of hand. The idea is to dazzle readers with what you do well in hopes of distracting them from what you can’t do at all. Krivák eschews direct dialogue — there isn’t a single quotation mark in the book — in favor of summary, a stylistic choice that worked in a laconic, action-packed novel like “The Sojourn’’ but in this case has a distancing effect. Instead of hearing the character’s individual voices, we hear them through an authorial filter, and before long they begin to sound the same. If the novel’s female characters seem thinner and less fully imagined than Bo or Father Rovnaváha, it’s a problem that might have been avoided had we been able to hear them speak.
“The Signal Flame’’ is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense, evoking a time before technology altered indelibly the rhythms of daily life. Krivák writes the weather, the seasons. Work — Bo runs a sawmill — is tangible and palpable: “He loved the acrid smell of the green woods and the syrup scent of pine as loads of these logs came down the grading chain and dropped to the floor, their presence recorded in the echoes that rose to the rafters of the corrugated ceiling.” His language — concrete rather than abstract — is sensual and precise. The most ordinary moments of daily life — Bo renovating his farmhouse, his efforts to save a truck engine flooded with water — are observed with care and reverence. The fictional town of Darden, set against the mountainous landscape of Pennsylvania’s anthracite country, is rendered in evocative detail, informed by Krivák’s ancestral knowledge of the place.
What emerges is a satisfying act of conjuration, the sine qua non of realistic fiction: a vivid rendering of felt life. “The Signal Flame’’ is a complex and layered portrait of a time and place, and a family shaped, generation after generation, by the memory of war.
THE SIGNAL FLAME
By Andrew Krivák
Scribner, 272 pp., $26
Jennifer Haigh’s most recent novel, “Heat and Light,’’ was published in 2016.