Beneath the surface of Black River, the taut debut by S.M. Hulse, flows the grey enigma of ultimate justice. The narrative forces the reader to ask: Does a recidivist criminal capable of torture, yet claiming to have found Jesus, deserve parole? Or would such redemption be an injustice to the man he brutalized decades earlier? By the time former prison guard Wes Carver confronts the inmate who tortured him—slowly, finger-by-finger (“Williams didn’t just snap. He twisted”) during a prison riot—we’re burning to learn the fate in store for both men.
The scars of two past events propel the present drama. Foremost is the prison riot, a life-altering episode for the musically gifted Carver, whose ruined fingers will never again play his father’s hand-crafted fiddle. Second, the broken relationship between Carver and his stepson. Carver hasn’t forgiven Dennis for a multitude of sins, including the night when Dennis threatened him with a loaded pistol. Ever guilty in Carver’s eyes as the illegitimate spawn of the man who raped Carver’s wife, Dennis remains, “the face Wes had searched for so many years, looked for in the features of every inmate on his tier.” The devout—but doubting—Carver is all too aware of his inability to exonerate Dennis from the sins of his father.
Carver returns to Black River to bury his wife, but stays to attend Williams’ parole hearing. While waiting to decide the man’s fate, Carver sets about transmitting his musical talent to Scott, the teenager Dennis has taken under his wing as a surrogate father. Scott’s biological father, meanwhile, is serving time at the Black River state pen, and Scott is bullied mercilessly by his classmates, the children of Black River’s prison guards. The question becomes: Can music save Carver, Dennis, and Scott?
Hulse’s lyrical prose suggests it might: “Slowly the sound Wes remembered returned, the fiddle’s true voice filling the canyon, building and rising with the mountains, inhabiting the air… (Carver) let Scott play it through once more, and he watched his face and saw the way the music transformed this boy, saw that he had been right in coming here with nothing more than a song, that it was enough for Scott as it had been enough for him. Saw that he had done something good.”
Black River is filled with such beautiful passages, and others more spare but no less evocative. The portrait of the eponymous town, for example, reinforces the sense that Black River itself is a prison, locked behind mountains: “As a child (Carver) had thought the slopes of the mountain ranges looked like the hands of giants, or maybe of God, each ravine and peak delineating fingers and knuckles, just visible above the edges of the earth… In Black River he was between two clenched fists about to collide.” Not an easy place for a man grappling with questions of Deity, retribution, redemption, and self-forgiveness.
No stone along the course of Black River is a wasted step, and readers will walk them as much to learn the characters’ fate as to drink deeply of the impeccable prose. And when the final resolution is set, after Carver has wrestled God and conscience, the mountains beyond which he’s unable to see begin to fade behind a veil of snow. Carver’s horizons are thrown wider, and in the powerful conclusion we learn that redemption isn’t about what happens to those we begrudge for the past, but about the future we build for ourselves in the here and now.
By S.M. Hulse
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2015