S.M. Hulse seems an unlikely candidate to take up the mantle of Kent Haruf. After all, Hulse is just 30 years old, young enough to be Haruf’s granddaughter. Her characters and themes should be a world away from the work of that quietly powerful Colorado novelist, who died in November.
And yet I couldn’t stop thinking of Haruf while reading Hulse’s debut, “Black River,” which she wrote as her MFA thesis at the University of Oregon. It’s a modern-day Western that takes place in the long shadow cast by past acts of violence. Sixty-year-old Wes Carver loses his wife, Claire, to leukemia in the opening pages, but his grief is immediately distracted by an invitation to speak at a parole hearing. Twenty years earlier, Wes had been a guard at the prison in Black River, Mont., when a riot broke out. During the standoff, an inmate named Robert Williams carved up Wes’s arms and slowly destroyed his fingers. “Williams’s name still brought with it the memory of the sloppy crunch of breaking bone,” Hulse writes, “still sent Wes’s gut into spasm and set his heart racing.” Now that monster is up for early release. Would Wes like to make a formal objection?
Hulse has positioned this slim novel at the confluence of several extraordinary events that could easily have caused an emotional pileup. In addition to returning his wife’s ashes to Black River at the very moment he must face his old torturer, Wes also becomes reacquainted with his stepson, Dennis, an angry young man he abandoned years earlier after an armed confrontation at the kitchen table. A rape, a train crash, a pair of suicides and some plotted murders hardly lower the story’s temperature.
But “Black River” offers a carefully controlled burn. In this small town where everybody knows somebody employed by the prison or locked up in it, Hulse wants to show us reactions more than events, effects rather than causes. This is a novel about people’s lives closely hitched to the past by law or trauma or sorrow. As the narrative gracefully dips back in time, we hear of fiery conflicts long after the fact. The horrors of the riot and the torture Wes endured appear late and only in grim flashbacks.
That’s a daring, disciplined move that might be manipulative if it didn’t so accurately reflect Wes’s personality. He’s an older man of strict rules and careful procedures that guide the way he behaves and speaks: no crying, no swearing, no outbursts. Hulse keeps the novel tightly focused on him as he hangs around Black River, waiting for the parole hearing, rejecting anyone’s sympathy and bickering with his stepson. “The only thing he and Dennis had in common was that they both loved Claire,” Hulse writes, “and now that she was gone, so too was the fragile, frayed thread that tied them together.” But in fact, the two men are more alike than they realize. Everything Dennis does, “every move he made, it was like he was trying to hold back, keep from exploding. It gave him an odd aura of stillness, but with a great deal of force behind each minute movement.”
Above all this barely contained grief and rage rises a mournful melody of old-time country music. Wes was once a great fiddle player, and the novel’s most sanctified scenes involve memories of practicing and playing the instrument his own father made and passed on to him. (Hulse learned to play while writing this novel.) For many years, Wes says, playing music “was the only thing that ever made me believe there was something else. Something more than just folks going through the motions day after day until there weren’t no more days to come.” The abuse he suffered during the riot robbed him of that, but as he waits for the parole hearing, he befriends a disgruntled teenager who’s keen to learn how to play. This is the novel’s most dynamic relationship, and if it slips a little toward sentimentality, it also provides some necessary vigor to what is otherwise a markedly interior story.
Not that Hulse has any trouble rendering Wes’s mental turmoil in a compelling way. She understands that grief and love are “like the same note played an octave apart, at the same time, ringing and resonating together.” What’s even more impressive is her astute handling of Wes’s tormented faith. Hulse is one of the few novelists working today who seem capable of portraying religion as a natural, integral element of characters’ lives — the way it is for most Americans. Wes is no saint, but he prays, he reads the Bible, he feels the corrective pressure of his religious ideals. He attends the little church in town, although it brings him small comfort: “Wes expected frustration during services — his mind ran a constant stream of objections against his efforts at faith — but the anger was new. There was something pathetically trite in being angry at God, and for such a cliched reason: How could He do this to me?” Wes knows Saint Paul was a convert and also knows he should be willing to entertain the possibility that his own torturer has been reborn, but there’s something intolerable about the thought of Robert Williams enjoying the comforts of faith: “A man like that doesn’t deserve to believe,” Wes says, “when I spent my whole life trying and still can’t do it.”
The soul-crushing anguish beneath that statement may be worse than anything Wes endured in the Black River prison 20 years before — and Hulse has more pain ahead for him. But the possibility of solace, if not redemption, hangs tantalizingly close in this tough, honest novel by a surprisingly wise young writer.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By S.M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 232 pp. $24