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A title can wrong-foot you, have you expecting something that never comes, or surprise you with its frankness, its willingness to give away so easily the heart of the novel it conceals. The title of D W Wilson’s debut novel, Ballistics, does both, acting as a multi-layered, if occasionally forced, metaphor that straddles small town machoism and high-reaching philosophy. Guns, and their inevitable bullets, are splintered into the wood of the narrative from the first page; but so too is a probing of how anything ever begins, and how a life’s trajectory is decided upon, if decided at all. When Alan West looks back on the summer he spent ‘in a scour across the Kootenays’, he wonders, while firing pot shots at tin cans, how it all began. ‘That’s a good question. That’s a philosophical question. It’s like asking when a bullet starts towards the beer can.’
These short sentences – taut phrases are a hallmark of Wilson’s pared back writing – encapsulate the whole novel: the feel of your grandfather’s .22 calibre in your hand, the small town aimlessness of popping shots in the backyard, the finality of a bullet and the wonderment at the Gunsmith’s Paradox, which states that ‘to reach its target, a bullet must first travel halfway, and to travel halfway it must first travel a quarter, an eight, a sixteenth, smaller and smaller, such that it will never reach its destination, such that it won’t even start to move. This means nobody can ever be shot. This means no journey can ever end.’
This particular journey begins when Alan West’s grandfather, Gramps, has a heart attack and, with the resolve of a dying man, asks Alan to find Jack West, the father Alan never knew and the son Gramps hasn’t spoken to in decades. Alan sets out on a road trip that takes him through the Kootenay mountains, through eerie towns ‘evac’d’ from the wildfires raging in the hills around them, and into his family’s past – he’ll learn, finally, why he never knew his mother and why his father upped and left more than two decades ago.
Pillow clouds swirled above the Rockies, and I smelled the pinprick sensation of lightning on the horizon. The sky had turned the colour of clay. Woodsmoke loitered in the air like breath – it clung to clothes and furniture, a scent like chimney filth, or hiking trips along the riverbeds, or the charcoal that remains on a campground after the campers have moved on. The province was in flames.
With Alan is Archer, an ageing American soldier who went AWOL during the Vietnam War, slipping over the border into Canada where he met Cecil West – Gramps to Alan – and forged a friendship that would later burn to ashes in a furious blaze of treachery. Together Alan and Archer, and in tugs and starts, narrate the knotty story of Jack, Cecil, Archer, Archer’s daughter Linnea, an elusive American nicknamed Crib, and Nora, who begins the tale as Cecil’s fiancée and ends it as Archer’s wife – even if time has pulled some knots too tight to ever unpick.
It is Archer’s voice that controls the emotional pitch of the story, as he peels back the bitter layers of guilt and broken friendship to get to the truth of what went wrong all those years ago in a small town where bullets, drinking and fights were more effective than words and reason. And there is nuance to Archer’s story, a pain and loneliness that find their way through the Macho blue-collar exterior to reveal a haunted man. There is a cleverness, too, in the narrative structure, and Wilson holds back information, shifts perspective and changes gears to control tension in the way a top-rate short story writer can – Wilson won the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award with ‘The Dead Roads’ and found acclaim with his first collection Once You Break a Knuckle.
Alan’s voice, on the other hand, lacks intensity and complexity and his story – he’s a Philosophy PhD who winds up in his hometown after fleeing an unwieldy thesis and failing relationship – feels like an artificial (if necessary) framework to the main plot. But if Alan’s tale is underdeveloped and unconvincing, then the women in Ballistics are hardly allowed a side to their own stories, and are instead narrated through Alan and Archer’s eyes. Though much has been made of the apparent ‘macho’ character of this novel, it is not a macho book. The men, outwardly detached, are just struggling single fathers trying to make good, or sons trying to impress their fathers. It is unfortunate, though, that the women of this novel are not given a voice other than that filtered by Archer or Alan; but the same could be said of Jack West – Alan’s absent father, a man who is afforded little compassion, but who only ever wanted to love and be loved – or Crib, the angry young American whose motives are never really explained, and even Cecil West, Gramps, who is described through the prism of Archer’s guilt and anger.
Uneven characters, male focus, an unconvincing set-up and an occasionally pretentious contrast between high and low nonetheless become insignificant against the quiet ferocity of unarticulated emotion, an intensity of feelings and thoughts left unsaid but keenly felt over decades, and powerful, taut, mesmerizing writing. The plot and pace might stutter and falter, like dying gunfire, but the impact of three generations of misunderstandings, reserve and stifled feelings will echo and reverberate around your mind, as if against the mountains which loom over each character.
. . . the landscape, the mere presence of it, as large as imagination and possibility, as large as forgiveness, that should – but doesn’t, truly doesn’t – make insignificance of the worries of men.