Tough justice, hard fate

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Then Came the Evening
Brian Hart
272 pages, hardcover: $25.
Bloomsbury USA, 2010.

In Brian Hart’s debut novel, a Vietnam veteran, believing his wife died in the fire that destroyed their cabin, goes crazy with rage and remorse, and commits a crime that makes the reader gasp. Bandy, who’s also half-drunk at the time, ends up in jail, but he was a damaged soul before the novel even opens. As we quickly learn, Iona isn’t dead after all: Instead, she left Bandy, pregnant with his child, for another man.

Bandy is still incarcerated 18 years later when he discovers he has a grown son, but their first meeting, during visiting hours, is not exactly joyful. After Bandy’s release, events bring him, Iona, and their son Tracy together to live in Bandy’s derelict home in Idaho. Many novelists would be tempted to settle for a schmaltzy resolution, the kind in which a family forges new bonds to heal the past. But Hart is smarter than that. There is no room for sentimentality in the unfolding of these choked relationships, and the novel is the better for it. Hart’s style is stripped-down and powerful, offering little introspection or interpretation of his characters’ motives. Instead, he presents them simply, in all their moral ambiguity. The seemingly resigned Bandy walks eyes-wide-open into disaster after disaster. Tracy’s characterization is touching, with his stoic acceptance of a father who can barely look after himself, let alone guide his son. The tension as they slowly establish a tentative alliance is deeply satisfying.

A nagging question hangs over the story: Did Iona burn down the cabin all those years ago, and does she therefore bear some responsibility for Bandy’s brutalizing prison years? Iona’s actions, although not as obviously damaging as Bandy’s, are somehow less understandable — we aren’t always given the reasons behind her choices. But this minor gripe doesn’t detract from a story of people trapped in a drama partly of their own making, partly of circumstance. How much can we fight fate, how much do we create our own?

The novel’s settings are more than a backdrop. Every detail Hart paints, from the culture and rough-hewn land right down to the animals that live in it, underscores the “between a rock and a hard place” dilemma of this fragile family. The beautifully intimate descriptions of the Idaho setting are a driving force. “The land was still, all of it, under the dented moon,” he writes, and “The snow fell on the black water and the black water swallowed it.”

The people who inhabit this stark landscape aren’t always likeable, but they draw you in to root for them, perhaps in hope that the world isn’t as stony hard as it sometimes seems. In some ways, each character challenges the reader in the same way Hart’s Idaho landscape does, forcing you to love it, or at least respect it, in spite of itself.

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