Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Black River

By (January 10, 2015) No Comment

Black Riverblack river cover

by S. M. Hulse

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

S. M. Hulse opens her strong debut novel Black River with sixty-year-old Wesley Carver, a taciturn retiree with a dead wife, ruined hands, and a letter from the parole board of the prison in Black River, Montana, informing him that Bobby Williams, the convict who tortured him for days during a prison riot twenty years earlier, is up for parole. Carver decides to travel back to Black River, staying temporarily with his stepson Dennis, and attend the parole hearing. Although neither he nor Hulse says so explicitly, it’s clear that he intends to testify at the hearing and either find closure if Williams is denied parole or kill him if he’s granted it.

During the riot, Williams had tied Carver to a chair and slowly, over the course of days, broken his fingers so badly they’d never heal. He’d written his name in Carver’s flesh with a shank. He’d been glib and remorseless about it all. Hulse expertly, gradually edges Carver – and her readers – up to recalling the details, which maximizes their horror, and along the way, the narrative steadily informs us of the enormous place music had held in Carver’s life before the riot, when he’d been a self-taught virtuoso on the fiddle (it’s only once in 232 pages referred to as a violin):

He had a repertoire of tunes that numbered in the hundreds, all learned by ear, all held there in his head, ready to be brought forth by his fingers at a moment’s notice. A nearly endless stable of notes and melodies at his command, and even that wasn’t enough. He composed his own tunes sometimes, pieces that went beyond improvisation, beyond a hot lick or a fast break. He never set out to do it; the tunes came into being as he played alone, forming themselves from notes that joined together almost without his deciding to join them. One of those tunes, especially, Wes let himself be proud of. It was a slow piece, not what you’d think folks would want to hear at what was essentially a big party. Not quite a waltz. More an air.

The tune – not quite a waltz, nor a lament, but an air – is called “Black River,” and the last request Carver’s dying wife Claire makes of him is that he play it for her, which of course he can no longer do. Through flashbacks Hulse shows us Claire slowly learning the depth of the trauma Carver endured in the riot:

And she sees the tears building in his eyes, and knows something inside him will break if they fall. Claire has never seen her husband cry, and she doesn’t want to. She rises on her toes to kiss him, and as she does she takes his face in her hands, and she wipes the tears from his eyes before he can know they are there.

As will be clear from that last bit (since if you were actually to wipe tears from somebody’s eyes before they’ve appeared, you would be poking that person in the eyes, a universally-recognized rudeness), Black River is a novel that’s been workshopped within an inch of its life. Nothing in it – from the sepia-perfect depiction of Claire’s leukemia to the flinty misunderstandings of Carver and Dennis to Carver’s impromptu affection for Scott Bannon, the surly teenager Dennis is mentoring, to the jailhouse conversion Bobby Williams claims he’s experienced – is even remotely believable (and if you confronted her on the point, Hulse’s defense would almost certainly be the weakest one of them all: that this stuff is mostly drawn from real life)(her author bio-note mentions that she’s “spent time” in Montana and is a fiddler), and all the characters talk in lines of sanded, laconic monosyllables designed for a Tommy Lee Jones movie, where the hero is always from 1867 regardless of the story’s actual time frame (“You know how you sometimes hear about a kid who kills the neighborhood dog for fun?,” Carver says at one point. “Just to see how long it will take, and what noises it will make while it dies? Williams was that kid, and I was a dog he found. He’s soulless. Or – what do they call it now? – a sociopath”). The women are either conveniently peripheral or angelically dead, and the men talk in expository bullet points like, “You grow up in this town, you go to work at the prison. That’s how it works.” You know on Page 3 that Carver and Williams are going to have a climactic face-to-face meeting outside the parole board hearing room at the end of the novel, and you know how that meeting will turn out. The only real question is whether the scene will feature cold rain or snow.

This can be a bit trying, but to the extent that it can be saved, Hulse saves it – mainly with some very intelligent insights into the emotional makeup of her secondary characters, especially stepson Dennis (there’s a moment of confrontation with Carver that’s starkly memorable) and Scott Bannon, who’s given just enough complexity to make the somewhat pat resolution of his plot-line disproportionately frustrating.

There’s enough finicky writing here to make Black River something of a promising debut novel, although readers may find it irritatingly familiar going.