Black River by SM Hulse, review by Bruce Jacobs
In S.M. Hulse's spare but rich first novel, Black River, troubles loom for her stoic hero, Wes Carver, and his family like the glacial mountains surrounding their small Montana prison town--mountains that to Wes "looked like the hands of giants, or maybe of God... two clenched fists about to collide." Black River's economic life centers on the Montana State Prison where Wes and his neighbors walk the tiers as guards, "enforcing rules, suppressing emotions, intimidating and refusing to be intimidated." When a riot erupts, Wes is taken hostage and methodically tortured by sociopathic inmate Bobby Williams. All his fingers broken, his wrists scarred by cigarette burns and cuts from a makeshift prison shiv, Wes is forever changed. No more can he experience the pleasure of his fiddle playing and composing. Now retired from the state on disability, he and his wife, Claire, move to Spokane, Wash., where he's hired as a mall cop to chase shoplifters and rowdy teens.
Wes's riot ordeal is only the latest traumatic incident in his scarred life. His woodworking father committed suicide, leaving his young son nothing but questions and a beautiful handmade fiddle. Claire's son, Dennis, a child of rape, resents his stepfather and threatens Wes with a loaded pistol. Claire develops leukemia, requiring cycles of hospital visits and treatments until the disease finally wins. Wes's nemesis Bobby Williams, now supposedly a born-again Christian, is up for parole in Black River. Wes returns to attend the hearing, and as he sits on Dennis's porch in the quiet night, he wishes he could just "ignore the business of life, the troubles that demanded attention, action during daylight hours."
But for Hulse's restraint and literary talent, it would be easy for these waves of woe to turn into melodrama. An MFA graduate of the University of Oregon, she has already mastered a Raymond Carver-like precision of description: the hospice brochures in Claire's hospital room are "all pastels and italics" and Wes remembers the smells of his father's workshop as "wood and oil and varnish... churchly scents almost." Even though redemption is elusive in this harsh world, Hulse allows nuggets of hope to shine beneath the darkest of waters--most tellingly in the music Wes writes and performs. Named "Black River" by Claire, his signature song ends "lingering on hope, never escaping melancholy... knowing... there were things here, in this canyon, in these lives, that were always painful and sometimes beautiful." With neither Claire nor his music, Wes's salvation can only come from "keeping his word. Following through. Doing what needed to be done." Black River is a transcendent story subtly unfolding in flawless prose--a remarkable first effort.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.