Daunting Debut 

Hart shows you can't go home again

About 30-odd pages into Brian Hart's Then Came the Evening, two of the novel's characters engage in an increasingly heated debate over the nature of urbanization, specifically the seemingly rapid urbanization of the Idaho and Montana countryside. The older of the two characters remarks that: "If somebody builds a golf course within a mile of my house, that's colonization: an act of war." The younger participant in the conversation disagrees: "But that's the way it's always been. Isn't that the natural order of things? Towns grow and turn into cities or turn into dust. Places change."

While the status of the so-called "colonization" in Lake Fork, Idaho (by "speculators" and "colonizers") remains a consistent, if secondary theme in the novel, the subject of domestic fluctuation—the very idea that you can return home, that you can even rebuild your home, but that it's never quite what it once was—is at the heart of this tragic and gorgeous debut novel.

click to enlarge Then Came the Evening - Brian Hart - hardcover, Bloomsbury - 272 pages, $25.00
  • Then Came the Evening
    Brian Hart
    hardcover, Bloomsbury
    272 pages, $25.00

In the novel's opening, Bandy Dorner, a troubled drunk recently returned from the Vietnam War, wakes up at the steering wheel of his car, which is stuck in a canal not far from his family's property. The cabin on his family's property has burned to the ground that very night and Bandy believes his pregnant wife, Iona, has died in the fire. Within minutes, Dorner has shot a police officer while his father, unable to stop his son, witnesses the act. Within days, a very much alive Iona, still carrying Bandy's child in her belly, hastily leaves town with her lover.

Flash forward nearly two decades later: It's 1990 and Bandy is serving out his term at the Indian Creek Correctional Facility in Idaho. Iona, recently widowed and living with her sister in Spokane, writes to Bandy for the first time of their son Tracy, who has just turned 18 and has left home to reclaim, with his father's permission, the Dorner property in Lake Forest. Bandy's parents have long since died and, though the house and barn still stand, the property has been untended for years and the house is in disrepair, its contents (furniture, bathroom fixtures, even wiring) poached by local thieves.

Still, Tracy Dorner is intent upon making the place a livable home once again. However, the teenager's fear of heights leads to a foolish and crippling accident that halts his slow, though not unpromising, start on the repairs. Iona, not altogether unwillingly, is compelled to leave her job as a truck stop cashier (and the cocaine and correlating truck stop trucker lover that come with the territory) to return to the Dorner property in Lake Forest to care for her son. When Bandy, severely ill with a liver ailment, is released from prison, he too returns to the homestead (he is, after all, the legal owner now that his parents are dead). With the speculators and the colonizers building all around them, the three main characters attempt a wary re-building of their own, amid the literal and figurative dereliction surrounding them.

In its way, Then Came the Evening is a quietly relentless novel, one that never lets up on the ever-deepening tragedies that surround each of the main characters. Though Hart doesn't shy away from what the decrepit landscape and violent events portend for each of the characters, specifically for Bandy, his prosaic touch is lyric and gentle. In one passage, after Iona has cut the bottom of her foot on a piece of glass at the truck stop where she works, Hart writes: "Her foot was still bleeding a little and she left blood splotches all over the floor like mouse tracks in the snow. Twenty-two steps to make a peanut butter and maple syrup sandwich and open a can of beer, she thought. Eleven spots, two feet."

In other ways, though, the fabric of Hart's narrative structure shows its seams a little too obviously, with certain plot devices appearing more like authorial machinations rather than the natural ripples of a story. Tracy's accident seems too convenient to get his mother back under the Dorner roof; a backstory that involves the death of Bandy's childhood friend seems like an easy excuse for the rage and guilt that will ultimately chart the course of Bandy's life. It's not that these plot turns are overly contrived, more that the 262-page novel feels a touch too brief to allow these narrative devices to develop thoroughly, rather than mechanically.

Ultimately, though, we want a longer novel because the risks Hart takes in this debut are gritty and poignant: We want more because we want to read more. What seems like a recognizably modern American story comes across as something much older, as these characters are ones who wrestle with emotions and desires that are ancient and all-consuming. In Hart, there is an echo of Cormac McCarthy's resolute yet restrained capacity for tragedy and violence. Yet there's something here that is all Hart, something we should all look forward to seeing again.

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