Black River could have been many different things. About five times you'll think it's going to be one way and then another. But it's always becoming something else - and this is a very good thing.
When you pick it up and look at the orange mountains and vintage typeface on the cover, you're positive it's a Western. You'll read the flap about Wes Carver returning to his Montana hometown to face his demons, and you're convinced you're about to open another Cormac McCarthy imitation. Then you read the first chapter and find that it's not just a bizarre way to begin a Western, but a perplexingly strange way to start a book. In just a few pages, you follow Wes and his wife out of the hospital with the bad news that her radiation treatments were ineffective and that she has been given weeks to live. In a stunning moment, she lays in bed asking Wes to play her a song on his fiddle. He can't. And when he looks up from his instrument she's already gone. And that's page 14.
It's devastating and undeniably powerful. So your next thought is that this trick is way too bold for a debut author. There's no way she can maintain this for the next 200 pages, and if she tries to, it'll be so maudlin you won't want to make it. But then Wes is already driving back to Montana with Claire's ashes in his truck, and he's forced to at least attempt reconciliation with his estranged stepson. Hours after getting back into town, we learn he has another reason to go back: Bobby Williams has a parole hearing coming up, and for some reason Wes is determined to keep this man in jail. And so it's almost like you've started another novel, but like Wes, you can't escape the deep shadow of that first chapter. Claire's benevolent, ghostly memory haunts the rest of the book.
Masterfully, Hulse reveals the darkness in Wes' past mere glimpses at a time. Most of this is done through the characterization of Wes himself, who is stubbornly stoic in ways both humorous and tragic.
Wes didn't do well with sympathy. Never had. There would be cards piling up back at home, well-meaning but trite condolences, and he'd toss them all unopened. "Well." He took another step down to the gravel, rocked a stone against the sole of his boot. "Known for a long time she might not make it."
As Wes and his stepson Dennis prepare to cast Claire's ashes into a mountaintop wind, this laconic grief reaches its apex:
"Should we say something?" Wes walked to the edge of the ridge, felt a clump of damp soil give way under his feet. "Can if you want to." But neither of them did. Didn't move, either, and they stood together for a long moment, Wes noticing Dennis's eyes getting a sheen to them. His own eyes were dry, but his heart beat hard in his chest, drumming against his breastbone in irregular bursts of impossible speed.
At times Wes' tendency to skip articles and pronouns in his speech slips into caricature, but by then you've already grown empathetic for the profound sorrow and regret that never peeks out between his terse phrases.
And so by now you're convinced that you're knee-deep in a poignant family drama in the style of Marilynne Robinson. But even then you're wrong, because just when you think the 'climax' of this book will involve tearful hugging in view of pensive wild horses, another tragedy rears up out of nowhere and radically changes the tone once more. Now Wes races toward his moment of destiny with Bobby Williams and his bulging knuckles around the cold steering wheel might as well be your own.
Of course, all of these delightfully unexpected turns shouldn't distract you from the language, which is as gorgeous and sparse as the wide open landscapes of the West. Hulse's unique specialty might just be her ability to convey the beauty of lonesome fiddle music. Before his violent meeting with Williams, Wes was a naturally gifted fiddler in a sometime-touring bluegrass band. "Black River" is the town, the river, and the name of Wes' signature song:
Every day it was the last tune he played before his fiddle went back in its case, and every day it changed. Just a bit. The changes became smaller and subtler over the years: adding a grace note, dropping a double-stop, digging his bow more deeply into a string. Each time he played it, Claire knew she was one day closer to hearing a masterpiece. And then the riot. Bobby Williams. Dust on a chipboard case.
And in the end this is the greatest thing about Wes (and Black River itself): he is possessed by demons and haunted by ghosts, but they never consume him. And when he must finally face his encounter with Bobby Williams, you'll be surprised at what you're rooting for. Then Black River will pull its final trick, and the ending will both satisfy and leave you hoping for more, just like the last lingering notes of an old mountain melody.