Deloume Road is a first novel, but ‘novel’ isn’t exactly how I’d categorise it; neither is it a collection of linked short stories, though that’s how I’ve seen it advertised – I’d describe it rather as a montage of flash fiction vignettes, a patchwork of tiny snapshots of the lives of a set of neighbours in rural Vancouver. It’s a beautiful and slow-building story with clearly evoked characters and a gorgeously rendered setting – but it’s got a dark underbelly of tragedy and death and solitude that’s a great counterpoint to the elegiac language and landscape that Hooton uses throughout.
Amongst a host of more fleeting characters, Deloume Road is home to ten-year-old Matthew, his younger brother Andy and his best friend Josh. There’s also Native American artist Al Henry, a veteran of the Korean War whose son, Carson, is missing following an aircraft accident; Irene, herself from Korea, widowed after only nine months of marriage and now alone and pregnant in a foreign land; the unnamed Ukrainian butcher, saving to send for his wife and son; and Miles Ford, the neglected and lonely son of the local scrap-metal dealer. The story unfolds over several summer days as the lives of these neighbours intersect; seemingly random occurrences and meetings set into motion a tragic series of events that will lead to death and guilt and a whole host of gruesome secrets. It’s not until the last few pages that the various threads finally come together, but it’s worth the wait, and in the meantime, the prose is just luscious. Listen to this:
“He stood still, mouth open, watching the soaring paper, each piece turning and hanging in the air as if attached to the ceiling by invisible strings.”
“So much blood, as if a paintbrush had been dipped in a glass of water for cleaning, and it spread from XXXXX’S head in veinlike threads, more and more of it.” [Name redacted to prevent a massive spoiler.]
I’m not usually a huge fan of novels that submerge their plots beneath layers of poetry, but Hooton does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere here. Plus the individual sections are tiny, so there’s no chance of getting bogged down in long descriptions. He uses snippets of first person narrative from each of his characters to build up an orchestra of voices, most of them no longer than two or three pages, and some as short as a few lines. The results is that the reader has the strong impression of simultaneous lives that overlap one another yet remain individual and distinct – which is difficult to do, I think, without seeming gimmicky or contrived. Hooton’s nailed it. He portrays a sleepy, lazy, isolated summer community, and makes it teem with hidden emotion.
I’ve got a single minor reservation, though: there’s a couple of structural devices that lifted me out of the dream-like atmosphere of the character’s lives and made me scratch my head. Hooton’s arranged the book, like I said, as a flash-fiction patchwork of voices, and each segment is headed by the particular character’s name with three repeated exceptions. First, the book is punctuated by descriptions of physical attributes of the area – the road, a tree, the river – these are beautifully handled, and I think they work; they give the reader breathing space from the constant onslaught of different voices. Alongside these, though, he’s got two other punctuation devices, which seemed (to me, anyway) pretty unnecessary. One, there’s an unattributed first-person voice that addresses an invisible ‘you’ – it becomes clear over the course of the book that these are the victim and the perpetrator or witness of the tragedy that you can tell is looming in the latter stages of the narrative. It’s intriguing at the start, because it hints at a plot to come, but as it recurs it labours the point, whereas I simply wanted the plot to develop in the main narrative, and not to have to read through a series of enigmatic hints that only disturbed the main flow of the prose. Second, there’s the flashbacks to the life of the man that originally claimed and cleared the land where Deloume Road now lies. Deloume himself is an ex-surveyor who becomes obsessed with the land and its myths and potential, and his eventual death foreshadows the future tragedy that our characters will undergo. Also, one of his possessions later falls into the hands of young Matthew, and sets the whole business into action. So he’s important for the theme and the plot, but there’s not much to his tale, and the repeated return to him alongside the landscape descriptions and the other mysterious voice, interrupts the main drive of the book too much for this reader. I’d have been inclined to bunch the Deloume segments together in a slightly longer piece at the start or in the middle, so that the readers gets to hear the story, but isn’t overly distracted by it. But I’m being very nit-picky here – there’s little else to fault. The author naming one of the main characters after himself is maybe a little silly, begging the ‘did it really happen?’ question, and that’s a little old-hat. But again – very minor nit-picking.
Any Cop?: This is an extremely well-told tale, and Hooton’s control of language and his ability to evoke place are enviable. The story rises to a horrible and satisfying crescendo, and the characters are clear and lifelike. I wouldn’t recommend it for a thrill-seeking fan looking for a pacey read, but if you like poetic prose with a dark edge, this is top stuff.