STORIES ABOUT THE WEST have long mythologized gun-toting cowboys who brought civilization and tamed the Wild West, like the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, who inspired hundreds of violent tales in the wilderness. Those days are over, and from a plane we can see the West and plains as a bucolic patchwork of irrigated lands interrupted by mountains, deserts, and small cities. Western stories retain a quality of place — the isolated communities, natural beauty, and extreme weather — that shapes realistic narratives in ways that differ from non-Westerns.
The novel Black River begins in the city of Spokane, Washington. A man, Wesley Carter, and his wife wait in a hospital room for tests, a meal, a blanket, remission. Remission isn’t coming, just the pain. The wife, Claire, wants to die listening to him play his fiddle, especially his masterpiece, “Black River,” but his pained, gnarled hands won’t let him. She soothes her husband’s ruined hands. He is helpless to ease her passing. In her description of Claire’s dying, S. M. Hulse writes with the lovely rhythms, spare language, tenderness, and flashes of rage true to the whole novel:
Her eyes had closed, and the rattle of her breath crescendoed and dwindled and still he held his fiddle and his bow. Suppose she wasn’t gone yet. Suppose she still waited to hear him play. Suppose she thought he was unwilling, not unable. He waited. Prayed. Considered trying to tune and rosin and play, knew he could do none of those things because he’d tried so long and so hard so many times before.
When dawn began to edge out night, he lowered the fiddle. Lowered the bow. Thought about smashing both against the wall. But instead he smoothed the blanket over her body. Laid the fiddle back in its case. Closed the lid. Fastened the latches.
The solemnity of that goodbye sets the tone of the novel. That the scene could take place anywhere across the United States — large metropolitan cities, private and county hospitals, claustrophobic rooms nearly identical — heightens for the reader the contrast when the widower Wesley drives back to his childhood home, where he had lived with his wife Claire, in the small town of Black River in the western Montana mountains. On the drive the landscape telescopes out and he’s on highways linking small towns and following rivers through canyons between frosted mountains and snow-dusted peaks. There is a large sign and he’s almost home: Montana State Prison, 6 Miles. Smaller signs advise: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.
Hulse skillfully handles time and tension, braiding stories from Wesley’s life with Claire and her son Dennis, when they all lived in Black River, and when Wesley returns there after his wife’s death. Wes carries in his truck his wife’s ashes and a letter from the prison parole board telling him that the convict Bobby Williams, who held him hostage 20 years before in a prison riot, is up for parole.
Black River is a prison town. Like his father and other townsmen, Wes worked as a corrections officer. When reading passages that tell of the guard’s routine — “the need to wear a face that does not show fear, how easily violence sprang into action in that place” — we want to know what happened to Wes during the prison riot, but Hulse is not yet ready to tell.
Wes’s work as a prison guard contrasts with the joy and comfort he gets from playing music. It is this gift that his captor most clearly takes from him when he destroys Wes’s hands during the riot. And in the aftermath, Wes’s faith in God is broken. He rereads Bible passages, “but though the words were familiar on his lips and tender on his ears, they taunted him with the promise of a peace and solace beyond his faithless grasp, and they brought no comfort.”
There is a deep spiritual landscape explored in Black River, one man’s examination of faith and evil. Wesley learns in the days before the parole hearing that his torturer has been “born again,” or is claiming a conversion, and Wes says he must be faking. Wes is angry and closed to the idea of his enemy finding God because Wes himself wants so much to believe as he once did but now cannot.
This interiority and consideration of faith reminds one of Marilynne Robinson’s books. In her three most recent novels, each centered in Gilead — a small Iowan town — her characters struggle with faith and are never at ease without it. Though Wesley wrestles with religion, Claire is untroubled and remains an atheist in her deathbed, wanting only to hear Wesley’s song. “Black River” meanders through the novel — Wes’s breakthrough in composing it, beloved performances, teaching it to children, heartbreak over losing the ability to play it. It takes on the dimensions of a hymn, a religious song of praise.
Tension and violence are a part of the town of Black River: a rape, two suicides, murder. Hulse writes violence the way it happens: in short, shocking flashes that are suddenly all over but the consequences. Some of these bits happen as Wes works his hurting hands and recalls a detail from the riot. He is trying to piece together what happened as he prepares to speak at the parole board meeting. And the torturous night continues in longer flashback passages to the night of the riot told from Claire’s point of view:
Claire doesn’t want comfort. She wants Wesley, and barring that, she wants hysteria. She wants to embrace it, succumb to it, fling herself into it headlong and let it take her. […] At that moment. Five hours in. Bobby Williams is putting out cigarettes on the soft underside of her husband’s forearm. Six touches of ember to flesh.
A sense of honesty and shunned pretenses matches the simplicity and clarity of the language. Wes is hard on himself, looking for the worst in others and finding it within. The men say much with few words or with their hands, as Wes’s grief is told in keeping hands in his pockets or working out a cramp. His angry, laconic stepson Dennis betrays a gentle streak when he handles horses. The assured rhythms of the language convey grace, restraint, insights, power, and beauty. Black River transcends its setting and the circumstances of a few people in a small Montana town to say something true and enduring about violence and families, and grief and compassion.
Strong writers of Western places like Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig take time to describe the land and how people move through it, in the manner of plein air landscape painters capturing beauty and immersive details. Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx also write about the West but are closer to Hulse in their focus on troubled family relationships, shaped by and circumscribed by their Western surroundings. Smiley’s strong portraits of Western families emerge from their living in fishbowls, the navel-gazing of these communities. Proulx places burdened characters in vivid landscapes and, like Hulse, she writes acutely about men.
Black River is a Western because the setting is western Montana. Not a classic “Western” about the “Old West” — with its tropes of how the West was won, the battles and settlements on the frontier, lawlessness, gold rushes, whorehouses, clashes with Native Americans, cattle barons, railroads, and the outsider who cleans up the town. For the Western to evolve, we need to bury the Old West tropes, or abandon them like a ghost town. Another option is to use Daniel Woodrell’s term “country noir,” which he coined with his 1996 novel Give Us A Kiss: A Country Noir. He has since distanced himself from the term as others are embracing it, mostly for the “noir” bit. “[T]he term noir that has been elasticized to the point that I don’t find it useful as a descriptive,” he writes, “it actually obscures rather than clarifies.” But Black River holds with other books labeled country noir the idea that the pursuit of the American Dream is a bill of goods — really, it is not on the table, your life is you and yours and small things.
The plot of Black River, and for future stories of the West, lies in the modern peculiarity of the Western locale: industries not wanted by the more populous cities and suburbs. NIMBYism (not in my backyard) is creating new kinds of Western stories. Many United States prisons are built away from large population centers. The prison town of the West is the new company town. Unpopular projects such as eyesore wind farms, air-polluting coal plants, and high-density fracking sites will create new company towns. One current project plan will change the desert in Nevada: Elon Musk’s five-million square feet Tesla car battery factory, the land deal secured after tough negotiations involving tax incentives. The damming of wild rivers sparks fights over water rights, changes ecosystems, and kills off species. These are western problems, and subject matter for future Westerns.
The final frame of so many movie Westerns is the mythical hero riding into the sunset. It implies serial storytelling, with more adventures to come. But Black River concludes with no external hero worship. For Wesley the past is buried — or set free — releasing him from its grip. There is merely a glimpse at the state of mind of a man coming to terms with himself and his life.
Wesley Carver meets again his tormentor at the parole board meeting. Bobby Williams speaks first to the board, answering their questions about his conversion to Christianity. There is a recitation of Williams’s crimes. Next Wesley speaks. He wills himself to tell of the hours of burnings, cuttings, breakings, all delivered to him 20 years ago in evil glee.
The parole board renders its decision, and Wesley learns of it in the hallway. The story hurtles toward its startling — and satisfying — dénouement … a showdown in town with a gun.
Hulse aims high in her realistic exploration of an individual mind, a wronged man. The novel evokes consideration of life and faith. It does not debate right and wrong but aims higher: at the possibility of salvation.
Vicki Gundrum lives in Denver and has worked as a journalist in Mexico and as an editor for Simon & Schuster.