Friday, December 18, 2009

Men Behaving Badly

Is this becoming a sub-category of American fiction? The main character is a decent, flawed male who makes bad decisions and lives to regret them. He's a taciturn loner prone to excessive drinking, womanizing, and machismo. But he is nourished by the stark beauty of the western landscape he inhabits. And his story is told in unadorned prose that seems to match his persona.

Did it begin with Hemingway and his simple declarative sentences? Sam Shepard often populates his plays with these damaged types. Cormac McCarthy portrays them in his dark morality tales. More recently Ron Carlson, in his novels “Five Skies” (Loss and Redemption)  and “The Signal” (Western Love), explored the psyche of emotionally scarred men struggling to become their better selves.

The latest in this literary line is Brian Hart's first novel Then Came the Evening. His flawed hero is Bandy Dorner. In the opening pages he behaves so badly that the story needs to skip ahead eighteen years to pick up the story, as Bandy approaches the end of a prison term. He returns to his native Idaho to try to connect with his ex-wife Iona and a son he didn't know he had.

Perhaps more than the other authors I've mentioned, Hart explores the complicated dynamic that pulls family members together and pushes them apart. His portrayal of the angry, needy son Tracy is especially honest and touching. His descriptions of the small Idaho town and its residents felt gritty and true. Violence seems to be a necessary component of this genre, and as is often the case there was more of it than I needed, although Hart doesn't wallow in it the way McCarthy sometimes does. And occasionally I felt that the story jumped in time and left me wanting the gap filled in.

Still, I admire Hart's attention to the specifics of place that made this story feel so real and honest, and in Bandy Dorner he has created his own version of the flawed Western hero.

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