Reading Ballistics, DW Wilson’s debut novel, is a reminder of the difficulties facing beginner writers – judging length, points of view, narrative structure, and fully differentiated characters.
by DW WILSON
Bloomsbury, 338pp, £12.99
Having the courage of his characters’ convictions was ever present in Wilson’s short story collection, Once You Break a Knuckle (2012), which knocked most critics off their perches with its gallery of inarticulate males doomed to live – in the words of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s hero in The Sportswriter – “the normal applauseless life of us all”.
In Wilson’s stories he made the applauseless silences resonate. In the novel he fills the space with too much happening, too many words.
The narrative’s mouthpiece is Alan West, a 28-year-old PhD student, home to Invermere, in the Canadian Rockies, for the summer, fleeing Toronto and a bruised love affair. The mountains dwarfing the township are threatened by wildfires, and Wilson uses this astutely to heighten the novel’s background tension. The book’s first chapter is its best — defining the lineaments of what might have been a wonderful long short story.
At once, Alan’s 82-year-old grandfather suffers a heart attack, and a guilt attack – the precipitating moment of the book: “I need you to find your dad, Gramps said to me from that hospital bed … there are some things I need to say to him before I go.” The unfinished business stems from Jack West’s (the son’s) disappearance decades earlier, leaving Cecil to bring up his grandson.
Soon Alan has found his Gramp’s old acquaintance, Archer Cole, the true central presence of the book, a Vietnam veteran who escaped with his daughter, Linnea, to Canada in the early 1970s, messed by napalm and grinding war fatigue. He and Cecil have been estranged ever since Nora, Cecil’s fiancée, hooked up with Archer, the kindlier, wiser, more reflective of the two men.
Archer’s flashbacks bring together the potent moments that nudge the reader into the heart of Alan’s journey: the recollection of Jack mistakenly shooting Archer on first encounter; the sudden appearance in the township of the mysterious, sinister Crib, a misfit American, who may or may not be a bounty hunter chasing US deserters; and, most significantly, the menacing electricity sparked when Crib makes a play for Linnea, to whom Jack has become attached like a dog on heat.
Wilson handles the two perspectives (Alan’s ignorant curiosity, driven inexorably by the urgency of his grandfather’s request, and Cole’s stream of consciousness recollection of his brotherly love for Cecil and how it imploded), providing the reader with an at times enraptured sense of the terrible messiness of a world in which men are stunted emotional mutes, and the women suffer, their endurance taken for granted.
The story lacks real insight into its trio of female characters: Nora, Linnea and Darby, Alan’s girlfriend back in Toronto. Invermere, drenched in testosterone, booze, male sweat, the sounds of gunfire, the rasp of petrol engines, buzzsaws, men revving up for regular blood and bone encounters, is a male-only adventure playground.
Wilson evokes it in telling detail, making Alan’s journey westward into the mountains, through the fire-belt, with Archer in tow, a bumpy ride that not only brings the men closer to Jack, but also uncovers Alan’s mother.
The closing quarter of the novel almost chokes itself: so much drama (Crib reappears in another guise, and Alan’s dog, Puck, makes a sentimental, final yowl — other deaths are also available). Crucially, of course, will Jack be found? Will he and Cecil be reunited? Can Archer Cole redeem the past and enjoy a monosyllabic reconciliation with his old buddy?
Only one of these questions is answered in a finale that aspires to stardust, not sparks. As Alan’s voice fades away and the dulcet, lyrical, often brilliant philosophising prevalent in his and Archer’s musings attains the speed of a disappearing narrative bullet, you sense it heading straight for another fist-clenched tale, its bruised lips sealed.
• DW Wilson is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 11 August