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By D.W. Wilson. Bloomsbury USA. 400 pages. $26
Thursday, July 4, 2013
British Columbia’s remote Kootenay Valley, as portrayed by native son D.W. Wilson, is a mighty hard and dangerous place. His male characters — they’re the only ones who really count — spend much of their time drinking, uttering macho platitudes, beating one another bloody and even taking up a firearm if one is handy. And they rarely rely on a doctor for repairs; they stitch their wounds with cat gut and ski needles and use whisky to blunt the pain.
It’s as if the first-time novelist had excised a slice of America’s Wild West, equipped his protagonists with Jeeps and battered pickups instead of horses, and then dropped the whole works into Canada. On top of everything else, there’s a fierce wildfire to the west and it’s moving eastward so fast that Wilson’s characters may have to stop fighting long enough to flee for their lives.
Not that there isn’t reason for at least some of the violence. Infidelity and betrayal of friendship top the list. Women are deeply involved, though they register as barely more than fringe characters in comparison with their men.
Though well enough done, this hairy-chested novel clearly is not for every taste.
The plot centers largely on a quest. Crusty old Cecil West had a heart attack in 2003 and believes his string is running out. He wants to make amends with his estranged son, Jack, who lit out years earlier for parts unknown. Cecil summons his grandson, Alan, from grad school and dispatches him to find Jack and bring him home. Alan is hardly disinterested, for Jack is the father who abandoned him as a child to be raised by Cecil.
Alan takes two passengers: Archer Cole and Puck. Cole is a deserter from the U.S. Army and bears multiple physical and psychological scars. The former were inflicted by the war in Vietnam (and, of course, multiple civilian brawls), the latter mostly by a break with his former close pal Cecil. Cole also is haunted by a tenacious and truculent American named Crib, who seems to be on the hunt for American Army deserters. He also becomes fatefully involved with the Wests.
Puck is Cecil’s three-legged dog, who is mortally injured but takes pages and pages to expire.
Wilson’s prose is straightforward, spare and suggestive of serious literary pretensions. He displays a diverting tendency to convert adjectives and nouns into verbs. Cars “snailed through town.” Sounds “dopplered away.” The chapters shift between the perspectives of Alan and Cole. Each chapter is headed by a quotation from Aristotle or another ancient, and Wilson frequently has his characters complement them with snippets of what Cole calls “wisdoms”:
“Numbness is a lot like friendship; it helps you forget how bad things are about to get.” “You can cheat death, but you can’t cheat getting old.” “It is what it is.”
And finally, “If you don’t know where you’re going then all roads lead there.”
The promising young author preceded this debut novel with “Once You Break a Knuckle,” a story collection that impressed critics and garnered a pair of prestigious prizes in England, where Wilson lives.
His style and preoccupations have been likened to novelist Cormac McCarthy and blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, though it does seem a bit early in Wilson’s career for him to be placed in such accomplished company.
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