Man of Iron
A PECULIAR GRACE
By Jeffrey Lent
Atlantic Monthly. 395 pp. $25
For someone who claims to crave solitude, Hewitt Pearce, the hero of Jeffrey Lent's third novel, certainly has a lot of women in his life. The 43-year-old Vermont blacksmith may have posted an ornery "No Entry" sign outside his forge, but that does not prevent a series of remarkable female visitors from barging through the door to fan the flames of his heart.
Most notable among these interlopers is Jessica Kress, a young stranger who drives a VW Bug with Mississippi plates onto Hewitt's property one morning. Beautiful and troubled, she somewhat improbably claims that she was on her way to Texas, only to wind up lost on the backroads of Vermont. Although Jessica is initially skittish and even hostile to her host, she eventually accepts Hewitt's offer of a meal and a shower.
What was intended to be a quick rest stop evolves into a more long-term arrangement. Jessica turns out to be a homeless drifter who has seen her share of trouble on the road and badly needs some shelter. What's more, her arrival just might be less random than it first appeared. Although Hewitt knows it could be trouble, he offers her a place to stay for as long as she needs one.
Meanwhile, on the very day of Jessica's unexpected arrival, there is momentous news from upstate New York: The husband of Hewitt's long-lost love, Emily Soren, has died after drunkenly slamming his car into a cow. Acting on instinct, Hewitt pays the widow an unannounced visit that ends in disaster. He crawls home, only to find that he must deal with yet more women. First, there is another ex-girlfriend who refuses to grant Hewitt the consolation he seeks. Finally, the blacksmith is faced with the imposing trio of his mother, sister and niece, who arrive with only a moment's notice, carrying with them the weighty emotional baggage of the family's past.
Lent made his name with the generational saga In the Fall, and his second novel, Lost Nation, also possessed a historical sweep. In this book, he tightens his focus, with mixed results. Certainly, Lent retains his ability to draw full, fascinating characters. Emily provides a memorable portrait of the shocked early days of grief. Anger, remorse and fragility battle within her as she eludes Hewitt's attempts to turn her into an object of affection. "She's a woman," a friend reminds him. "Not a goddamn memory."
Jessica grows in complexity, too, proving herself capable of a wisdom that far outstrips the much older Hewitt. "I don't know how it is here in Vermont," the Mississippi waif remarks at one point, "but I always found country people pretty firm in their ideas and scared to death they're wrong, all at once." And Hewitt's long-dead father, a successful but reclusive artist, also turns out to be a memorable character, his tragic early life animating much of the book's current action.
Unfortunately, Lent is less assured with Hewitt himself. The book's protagonist does not always measure up to the narrator's assessment of him as "free of bitterness." His callous visit to Emily suggests a fairly ample reserve of bitterness, most especially when Hewitt looks ready to punch her 16-year-old son when the boy rightfully demands to know why this stranger has arrived to upset his mother just days after his father's death. Something rings false about his eccentric Yankee mannerisms, whether it be the tractor he drives in lieu of a car (he lost his license for DUI) or the flinty, take-it-or-leave-it attitude he displays toward his rich clients. Similarly, Hewitt's antipathy toward his perfectly nice sister, who has the audacity to work for a hotel corporation, smacks of cheap reverse snobbery.
Perhaps sensing his hero's shortcomings, Lent's usually controlled prose occasionally comes unmoored as he labors to describe the mechanics of Hewitt's soul. The description of Hewitt's teenage affair with Emily, for instance, asks us to imagine how "the sheer velocity of this passion had initially set their mutual course like twin blazing comets across the eons of the universe. . . . Not from intention and certainly not from malice but from stark utter disbelief as those comets either collided too hard and broke to fragments or simply slid by each other after a long grazing spark-laden interval."
Creaky astronomical imagery also mars Hewitt's meeting with Jessica:
" 'I'm a blacksmith. I think I told you I pound iron. After it's heated the iron reacts in surprising ways. When it's right, beauty comes from it.'
"She said, 'But we all have iron inside us.'
" 'Yes,' he said. 'We are stardust.' "
Somehow, despite the crankiness and, yes, bitterness that can make him unappealing to the reader, Hewitt winds up surrounded by strong women who are more than willing to forgive, admire and desire him. The fact that he is afforded so much grace is peculiar indeed. ·
Stephen Amidon's most recent novel, "Human Capital," is now available in paperback.