This is a man’s world

by Kathleen Yale

Ballistics: A Novel
D.W. Wilson
400 pages, hardcover:
$26.
Bloomsbury, 2013.

Nestled in British Columbia's remote Kootenay Valley, the town of Invermere is a place where "sons take after their dads and teenagers in lift-kit trucks catch air off train tracks … burn shipping flats at the gravel pits and slurp homebrew that swims with wood ether." Here, men build their garages with drains so that the blood dripping from gutted game "wouldn't make more than an oil-spill splatter on the floor." It's the kind of town Hemingway might appreciate: It's Man-Land.

D.W. Wilson's prose is as lean and masculine as the world he creates in his debut novel, Ballistics. It echoes that of Cormac McCarthy and Joe Wilkins, those masterful chroniclers of the inner lives of rough, working-class Western men. Wilson's sentences are well-crafted, laconic but with their own muscular brand of poetry. His characters don't talk much, but seem to have an innate understanding of what's what. They mostly get by with pauses, grunts and sideways glances.

The narrative is split between Alan West, a philosophy student in his late 20s, and Archer Cole, an aging Vietnam vet who went AWOL in the '70s and fled to Canada. The two are united by Alan's grandfather's dying request to track down his estranged son, the father Alan has never known. As they embark on a dubious road trip, hindered by roadblocks and wildfire, old secrets start to emerge and unravel.

The alternation of scenes between present and past reveals a complicated family history, though the two men's voices are nearly indistinguishable. They're a couple of crusty badgers drinking burnt coffee and cheap beer while pining over women, getting into brawls and receiving homemade stitches afterward.

All this machismo works well enough, but it leaves little room for the would-be-interesting girlfriends and daughters, who remain merely objects of desire or perpetrators of betrayal, skulking around in oversized flannels. We never really know who they are or what they want. This isn't their world.

The plot unfurls at a steady pace of intrigue, crackling at times with a suspense mirrored by the expansive wildfires. There are moments of perfect confrontation – particularly the scenes involving a violent newcomer called Crib, who drives around in a star-spangled Ford, possibly tracking down AWOL vets. Unfortunately, many of these loose ends remain untied by the end, which, for all its foreboding, fades away quietly, leaving as many questions unanswered as it resolves.

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