The first novel from acclaimed Canadian short story writer, D.W. Wilson, Ballistics covers some of the same ground that fans of his shorter fiction will recall – male friendship, father-son bonding (or the lack thereof), the tension between sentimentality and a brusque macho front, and, of course, the small-town wilderness of the Canadian heartland all pay significant roles here. If you’ve read Wilson before, you’ll be on home turf, and if you haven’t, be prepared for a rocky, bloody bruiser of a ride; this prose is nothing if not visceral.
In summary, then: Alan West is on a mission: the grandfather who raised him, Cecil, is ill, and he want Jack to track down his son, Jack – Alan’s estranged father – for, we assume, a deathbed reconciliation. Alan, who’s on the run from a broken-down relationship and an unfinished PhD thesis, set out to find his long-lost dad, and on the way encounters his maternal grandfather, Archer, and Archer’s wife, Nora, as well as his own mother, Jack’s ex, Linnea, and Linnea’s husband Colton. Phew. The book’s got two narrators and two timelines: as well as Alan’s story about his background and his mission, we’ve got the whole backstory of Archer and Linnea, and how they came to Canada; of Cecil and Jack; of Linnea and Jack; of Cecil and Archer and their problematic friendship; and of the disastrous love-triangle between Archer and Cecil and Nora – Cecil’s one-time fiancé and Archer’s lover. Oh, and while Alan’s hunting for Jack, wildfires are devastating the landscape, making his path potentially deadly and putting an extra life-or-death spin on events.
Complicated? Yeah. It just about works, though; on occasion there were times where I couldn’t glean how much Alan in the present had yet learned about Asher’s past, which made it in turn difficult to read his interactions with the other characters, and there’s a section near the end when Archer’s narrative toggles between two subsidiary timelines that initially threw me for a loop – but, overall, the counterpoint
between past and present works well in drawing out the complexities of each of the (many) tangled relationships in the novel. The tone is casual – the brusque homespun familiarity of a fireside buddy – and the story itself is engaging; Alan’s race through the scorched hillsides is tense, and the apprehensive build-up to Linnea’s absconsion, Cecil’s downfall at Archer’s hands, and baby Alan’s abandonment is nicely executed in terms of character and plot development. Wilson’s language is very rich – there’s an abundance of evocative description of desolate landscapes, run-down small towns and meager outposts, as well as of the people, with infirmities (or age, illness and injury) picked out to an almost grotesque, though still believable, degree. Wilson’s is a Canada that’s not far removed from Daniel Woodrell’s Missouri – ‘country noir’, Woodrell calls it – where tough men make tough decisions in an unforgiving place and time.
It’s not, however, without its flaws. First up, Wilson’s depiction of women leaves much to be desired. The novel deals in men and their relationships with one another, and the two most significant female characters, Nora and Linnea, enter into the book mostly as catalysts for male action: Archer loves Nora, sure, but it’s the Archer/Cecil relationship that’s at the heart of the text; and Linnea, who’s arguably the lynchpin of the entire book (her relationship with jack draws the adults together; it begets Alan; her departure with Crib is what causes Jack to leave; her revelation about the Archer/Nora affair spurs Jack to tragic action), barely features as a character in her own right. What’s her motivation for choosing Crib over Jack? It’s impossible to tell, and in a book that’s rife with ruminations on and explanations of motivation, this absence is notable. If Wilson’s trying to get at the unknowability of women, then that’s a big black mark against him, and if he’s simply going for the unknowability of Linnea, then that in itself is unmotivated, as both Archer and Jack go to great lengths to ferret out each male character’s driving force. When Colton dies, Linnea is in fact described as ‘unreadable and distant’, which can’t be said of Archer or Alan, or even, by then, of Colton himself. Earlier, when she leaves Archer, though he’s hurt he’s still prepared to let her go – until it emerges that she’s leaving with Crib, his nemesis, upon which he fights Crib; it becomes a battle over property rights, and Linnea’s own autonomy (or lack thereof) is eradicated from the text – or at least, she writes herself back in by joining the fight, but the fight itself is predicated upon man’s right to fight for a woman, and the text doesn’t go very far in questioning that right. In the other strand, Alan’s mission to find is father is foisted upon him by Cecil, but when he’s given his mother’s details, he treats her mostly as a stepping-stone on the way to Jack’s house. Neither Linnea nor Alan are given any real scope for emotion at their reunion. Her almost blank reaction to his visit is consistent with the general flatness of her portrayal, but Alan’s own reaction is odd. He feels stunned, he tells us, but he doesn’t know why: ‘[it’s] not like I counted this as a major destination in my journey to find my dad.’ You’ve got to ask, well, why didn’t you?
A more trivial point about characterisation, or, perhaps, about verisimilitude, leads us back to Alan himself: he’s about to finish his PhD in philosophy, but after the initial explanation and a few cursory mentions about his lack of connection with his roots, this doesn’t come up again. It feels integral neither to the text nor to his character; we might have been told that he’s a stranger to the homeland, but his deep familiarity with its landscape and customs and his comfort with the vernacular of the area and its people all beg to differ. Alan as a grown-up doesn’t ring true as the prodigal son – so if he’s the modern-day equivalent of his runaway father, the tactic fails, because Jack is different from his folk, he has changed. Alan, though, appears to fit neatly in – even to the extent of expertly criticizing his grandfather’s shoddy workmanship in sawing off the barrel of a shotgun. Likewise, he shoots off to find Jack with ne’er an angst attack, though I’m skeptical that any twenty-eight year old who’d never really spent any time with his parents would speed off with such alacrity to find them, no matter how ill their remorseful grandfather. The main spur of the book – the journey of rediscovery – starts off, then, pretty shakily, and though Alan’s story is an interesting one (if less so than Archer’s) Alan himself is a fairly hollow narrator. Plus (I’ll stop after this), he reads much more like a nineteen year old than a man approaching thirty – perhaps this is the Peter Pan infantalization of the feckless academic, but it felt, to me, more like unresolved characterization.
While Wilson’s writing is, as I said, rich in imagery and language, and always very evocative of place, he (or his narrators) tend to tip into Yoda-like aphorisms with an alarming regularity. Describing a fight, between blows, Alan tells us: ‘Pain is entertaining when it will not leave you crippled, but a true injury hurts most for the fact that you will never fully regain what it has taken away.’ When Alan meets Jack, he says, ‘Part of facing your own demons is the realization that not everyone will be able to do so.’ The extent of the actual wisdom offered here is a matter of opinion, perhaps, but the text is top-heavy with it, wise or not, which detracts from the sharp observations and the realistic style that Wilson otherwise achieves; the balance between introspection and inadvertent comedy sometimes tips over. And, finally, the book opens with a not-quite prologue, as Alan cracks open a beer and starts telling his tale to an unnamed friend – but because we never return to this scene it feels like an extraneous device. I think it’s safe to assume that Archer’s tale is being told to Alan as they drive towards Linnea’s house, but that’s never overtly set up, and hence my earlier confusion over the rate of information release.
Any Cop?: Despite its potential – strong prose, a fantastic setting, a great family psychodrama – this one’s let down by a number of factors, and I’d be loathe to recommend it, which is a real shame, as Wilson’s a writer of not inconsiderable talent. Still – perhaps wait for the next one.