By D.W. Wilson. Hamish Hamilton, 384 pp, hardcover
Set against the backdrop of the forest fires which destroyed huge swaths of the Interior in 2003, Ballistics, the first novel from prize-winning short-story writer D.W. Wilson, interweaves two story lines, each steeped in blood and fire, each leading, seemingly, inexorably, toward catastrophe.
The primary story line begins when Alan West’s grandfather, Cecil, suffers a heart attack. From his hospital bed in Invermere, Cecil asks Alan to find his son Jack—Alan’s father—who abandoned the family when Alan was only a year old. Neither have seen Jack for almost three decades, but rapprochements are to be made. Time of the essence, Alan takes to the road as the mountains burn around him.
The secondary story line, set more than three decades earlier, follows Archer Cole, a deserter from the U.S. army who flees to the Kootenays with his teenage daughter to avoid being sent back to Vietnam. After weeks in the wilderness, breaking into cabins for sustenance, growing dirty and desperate, they meet gruff Cecil West and his teenage son, Jack…
From that brief overview, you might think you have a sense of where Ballistics is going; this is not the case. One of the great pleasures of the novel is the way it surprises at every turn. None of these twists feels forced, however: each is grounded in realistically drawn, vital characters who behave as human emotions and frustrations dictate, rather than conforming to the expectations of the reader.
Wilson writes with a pared, incisive style—he’s been compared to Hemingway and Carver, but while there are stylistic echoes, Wilson’s prose has a greater depth and complexity, a richness within its starkness. The sequences featuring Archer, an amateur artist, are particularly vibrant, steeped in the natural beauty of the Kootenays, juxtaposed against the violence and emotional rending of the story line.
Ballistics is a novel of men, of violence and secrets, and the force of the past to act upon the present. It is a harrowing, often brutal read, but it is also emotionally potent and resonant. Simply put, it’s one of the finest novels of the year.