March 2015

Vanessa Willoughby


Black River by S.M. Hulse

How does a man find solace after dragging around the crushing burden of memory for the past twenty years? Wesley Carver, the stone-faced protagonist of S.M. Hulse's smart debut novel, Black River, struggles to believe in the higher powers of faith and redemption after surviving a brutal attack as a former correctional officer at the local prison. When a riot broke out at the imposing Montana prison, Wes was taken captive by a sadistic prisoner named Robert "Bobby" Williams. Over a period of thirty-nine hours, Wes was tortured by Bobby in a depraved series of physical assaults ranging from painfully and slowly breaking his fingers to getting burned by his own cigarettes. Despite the grim odds, the guards eventually reclaimed the prison and Wes was rescued. The rescue didn't bring salvation: resentment and rage wormed their way into Wes's heart, forever altering the fragile familial bonds connecting him to his wife, Claire, and his stepson, Dennis.

Hulse's crisp prose matches the solemn, economical speech of her reluctant main character. Wes is a man who believes that masculinity is defined by the ability to silently endure pain, to stow it away out of sight. Claire is his only true confidante, after having fallen out of friendship with his wife's sister's husband, Arthur Farmer, also a former colleague at the prison. When Claire dies following a brave fight against leukemia, Wes must return to Black River to bury her ashes, reconnect with the estranged and grown-up Dennis, and confront the events of his past. Naturally, this is no easy feat, and his abandoned home, the stark, unforgiving prison town, tears open his lingering wounds. Hulse forgoes flowery, extravagant descriptions for unencumbered language, fully pulling the audience into the rural openness of the West. As Wes sifts through the grievances of the past and present, readers can feel the coldness of the air, the tension bubbling in his chest, the whisper of the winds against his skin. Sensory details sometimes speak on behalf of the emotions that Wes attempts to block out. 

In his previous life, before the tragedy, Wes was a gifted fiddle player, guarding the violin made by his late father like a delicate, newborn baby. After Williams twisted and shattered the bones in his hands, Wes is deprived of the pleasure of indulging in his talent. The fact that he'll never be able to pick up his fiddle and play at that level of ease and startling virtuosity is akin to being cast out of heaven. Hulse carves a character seemingly sprung from the Montana mountains, emphasizing his musical abilities as the thread to his compassion and humanity. Not only is the fiddle a symbol of the life and the person that he lost, it represents the possibility of healing and inner growth. This is best showcased when Wes tentatively befriends Scott Bannon, a teenage outcast who moves to Black River in order to be closer to his father, who is in prison for robbery. Although his years in law enforcement have made Wes wary of strangers, he forms a tender attachment to Scott and tries to be a mentor. He is genuinely impressed with Scott's natural abilities and allows the high schooler to use his personal fiddle. His investment in Scott is the closest Wes has come to optimism and faith in decades.

Hulse is never heavy-handed with her metaphors, even though such an intense character study could produce maudlin or overly sentimental truths. One of the biggest sources of ongoing tension is the revelation that Bobby Williams is up for parole. Will he walk or will he serve the rest of his life in prison? Bobby claims that he's a born-again Christian and has found God. Wes doesn't believe that Bobby has changed in the slightest, thus feeding his outrage and cementing his disbelief. Although Wes may not have obtained his desired form of revenge, it is through this inaction that he becomes a saved man.

Demons lurk in the darkness of town and Wes is familiar with nearly all of them. Wes is far from perfect, but he must be broken before he can become whole again. He spends much of the novel wondering how he can achieve a state of grace if he does not believe in God, refusing to fix the most obvious problem: mending his relationship with Dennis. Though not related by blood, Dennis and Wes are more alike than they want to admit. They are afraid to recognize that they need one another, that they will continue to drift through half-lives if they do not make amends. Towards the end of the novel, Bobby asks Wes, "Did you ever think maybe that blade made the things you said to God more true, not less?" Hulse puts Wes through a fire baptism. He must learn that faith is not found in who can suffer patiently and who can suffer the best, but who can transform the rubble and ruins into something positive. Wes initially believes that he is being punished, when in reality, he is the one who extended the length of his punishment. Sometimes the strongest prison is one of our own making.

The narrative of Black River is not a straight shot; it uses interesting flashbacks to further highlight character construction and development. The flashbacks humanize Wes, peeling back layers of his tough exterior. As other critics have observed, Hulse is closer in style to Annie Proulx than Cormac McCarthy, as there is a certain softness in the handling of characters that is typically not witnessed in the latter's work. The author is much more concerned with breaking down posturing and her character's mental, emotional, and psychological walls rather than showing the terrible expense of their upkeep.

The unexpected ending may not leave all readers satisfied, but under the narrative circumstances, it is a radical decision. If it were up to Wes, he would waste the rest of his years steeped in quicksand grief, permanently shutting out the rest of the world. Hulse takes the road less traveled, hinting at the rebirth of fatherly love and the transformative blessing of forgiveness.

Black River by S.M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0544309876
240 pages