In his first novel, Then Came The Evening, Brian Hart excels at a familiar kind of guy’s guy writing: short sentences with straightforward descriptions of characters that favor the terse over the verbose. “He hit and nothing made sense and then he came back to himself. He was hurt.” Most of the action takes place in Idaho and Wyoming and the men — war veterans, farmers, ranchers, construction workers — all have a stoical air in their interactions. “Bandy didn’t care what it meant and he didn’t feel like talking so he didn’t.” A pretty neat line could be drawn from Ernest Hemingway to Raymond Carver and the Cormac McCarthy of No Country For Old Men with plenty of other authors filled in between.
Within this familiar style of writing, Hart has a firm grasp on pacing, characters, and the telling moment. But he also knows when to break the expectations of his style. Where most proponents of “masculine” minimalism in the vein of Carver eschew big happenings in favor of the subtle reveal, Hart is not afraid of the big set pieces driven by action. His story is about the effects of violence and his quietly grand approach tamps down the extreme effects of rampant minimalism and emotionalism on either end of his writing. Though not without its fault, Hart has a unique and captivating voice and this book is a notable debut.
It opens with a cosmic disaster in a world beset by disasters. It is the early ’70s and a dead drunk Vietnam War vet in Idaho named Bandy, thinking that his wife Iona has died when their cabin burns down, shoots and kills two police officers by the side of the road near his family’s farm. The unfolding of this action is shocking in the extremity and speed with which it unravels. “Bandy looked at the pistol and at the cop’s eyes and he didn’t care. He crossed the distance in three quick steps and palmed the gun and wrenched it away and it went off.” Meanwhile Iona has faked her death and is in the process of running to Wyoming with her boyfriend Bill. She is pregnant with a baby boy from Bandy.
The second chapter jumps forward to 1990. The boy, Tracy, is now eighteen years old and he has left his miserable mother and traveled to Idaho. He meets Bandy for the first time, in prison, and his father gives him permission to set up shelter at the abandoned family farmhouse. That house becomes a major character and Hart makes a strong impression of it when Tracy first arrives. When he goes inside he finds that “the walls were ripped open and the wiring and plumbing had been torn out.” Ultimately “the trespass felt personal, as if they knew he was coming and what his plans were.”
Tracy starts to fix up the house while picking up work with a building contractor. He befriends a tough but kind old neighbor named Wilhelm. Wilhelm is a likeable character, but overly sentimental in his description and the anger he harbors towards Bandy is too neatly forecast. Elsewhere Hart effectively uses the other townspeople’s vivid memories of Bandy and his crime to create a pall over the main characters and their attempts to surmount the past.
In his diligent hard work Tracy tries to avoid the poor rural downward spiral that gripped his parents. Then one night he attempts to overcome his fear of heights by climbing the roof of a house. He falls and shatters his legs. It is a devastating blow to his hopes for a decent life. (Hart keeps the allusions to Icarus and Daedalus in the fall tastefully muted.)
Iona travels back to Idaho to help her son recover, in the process shaking off the life of drugs and casual sex she has been living since Bill died in Wyoming. After Bandy is released from prison, Iona and Tracy let him live in the farmhouse too and a strange, uncertain approximation of the family life they never had takes shape.
The first dialogues between Bandy, Iona, and Tracy are painful dissections of their confusion and anger mingled with their tentative allowances of trust. When Iona first sees Bandy she asks, “Should I be afraid of you?” In their first real conversation Tracy asks, “What was it like in there?” Hart writes, “Bandy wanted to hear him say it. ‘In where?’” Likewise Hart’s narrator captures the individual points of view within a scene — Tracy’s tough yet boyish naivite, Bandy’s difficulties adjusting back to the world — without losing the larger scope.
That this tender family cannot last seems obvious, but Hart made me hope for a happy outcome. There is a pleasing dryness to the way he tracks their attempts at rehabilitation: getting jobs, paying bills, making dinner for each other, and Tracy’s literal physical rehabilitation for his legs. But there are ominous signals in the unaddressed tension between Bandy and Iona and the way Tracy has set up a strange boyish existence for himself without same-age friends or a girlfriend.
In this late middle portion the book threatens to settle into a comfortable slump. As they get to know each other, the family members start to speak their mind, and the book’s themes, too literally:
“We’re both ruined. We have been for years, both of us.”
“I remember what we were like when we were happy.”
Then the guns go off — literally and metaphorically — in mainly unexpected ways, pulling the characters back into their familiar realm of disaster and violence.
The surge in physical conflict, set up during an earlier chapter that tracks Bandy’s last weeks in prison, creates tension without playing off cheap tropes of crime fiction with which the plot deceptively flirts. In resolving this heightened action with the carefully rendered character study used elsewhere, Hart occasionally stumbles with character scenes that ring false or borderline maudlin in their emotions. However, the final moments are enormously effective in driving the main characters to a well-earned if not exactly total moment of acceptance and maturation.