A few months ago, Sunny posted companion musings where she and I both opined about the tempo and rhythms of Southern literature. At the time, I briefly suggested a comparison with the diction and syntax of prose from the American West, “where our cadence canters more crisply and our lingo rarely languishes at all.” Now I can praise a novel that illustrates perfectly my verbal characterization. Black River, by S. M. Hulse, exemplifies top tier western writing, with pictorially realized scenery, cryptic true-to-life characters, and language that alternately canters and gallops and trots, and then rests in the Montana shade. Black River may be the best piece of western fiction I’ve read in years. Its content and its language together mirror the terrain almost perfectly.
The novel takes place in a small, close-knit, Montana community, Black River, set deep in a canyon surrounded by mountains and steep cliffs. Home to the state penitentiary, Black River’s entire existence owes its allegiance to its principal employer. Wes Carver, who once served as a corrections officer (a euphemism for guard), has returned to Black River after an absence of twenty years. He brings with him the ashes of his wife, an inability to articulate his moods, and a long history of dark memories. Black River moves seamlessly between past and present, recalling Wes’s Black River boyhood, the later years when he worked at the prison, and the time after that when he and Claire banished themselves to Spokane. Sometimes the reader sees Wes through Claire’s eyes; more often the reader sees Wes reflecting on himself, his involuntary actions and his flawed relationships with those around him.
I have enormous respect for S. M. Hulse, who has gotten the reader inside the head of someone who is basically inarticulate. “He makes an awful sort of pained sound deep in his throat, and Claire reaches forward and curls her hand over the scroll of his fiddle and pulls it down, away, and finally he relinquishes its weight to her and quits. Half drops and half throws his bow to the floor. It clatters dully on the hardwood, a blunt coda to his ruined song.” Wes, once a fiddler acclaimed far and wide, sits speechless when he can no longer play his music. And Hulse conveys that dreadful silence in just a couple of sentences, condensing powerful emotions into quiet desolation. “He felt a familiar rending starting in his chest, small now, slight, as though his heart was tearing slowly, fiber by fiber. God, how he missed her.”
Black River’s prose communicates landscape as well as character. A lengthy paragraph describes the spot where Wes and his stepson release Claire’s ashes, “space where the road ran too close to the edge of the mountain to support trees. Roots burst from the earth and dangled in open air, and fallen forms of trees lay scattered on the slope below.” Brittle, precise language demarcates the empty, chosen place. “And ahead, behind, surrounding: endless folds of forested mountains, then white-shrouded peaks rising beyond, too distant to seem entirely real.” A reader might be standing alongside, leaning into the wind, staring into the distance, searching for an inadequate locution while Hulse has already rendered an impeccable scene. Few writers, whether western or southern, are as skilled.
Black River is a novel to savor, one that makes you stop and think not only about the prose but about the narrative and its attendant themes, too. I’ve purposely obfuscated the storyline and its thematic complexities because the events are occasions a reader should encounter through Hulse’s words, not mine. Trust me, you’ll not forget Black River for a long, long time. – Ann Ronald
Black River is S. M. Hulse’s debut novel.