Brian Hart's debut novel, Then Came the Evening, begins with a calamitous misunderstanding. Bandy Dorner, hungover and in trouble with two police officers, is told that his cabin burned down the night before. Bandy assumes his wife, Iona, was inside, and in a confused fury he shoots one of the cops, killing him. But Iona, we soon learn, did not die in the fire. She took off with her new man earlier that night—just after she burned down the cabin.
The rest is fallout. From the early '70s we fast-forward to 1990. Bandy's son, Tracy, conceived not long before the fire, comes to visit his father in an Idaho prison. The young man has left home and plans to refurbish an old house that belonged to Bandy's parents. Bandy gets out of prison not long after the visit and joins his son in fixing up the home. Iona is there, too. Over the next several months, they live together uncomfortably, broken, a family that never was.
Then Came the Evening may seem ostentatiously bleak—full of prison beatings, drunken fights, sex with truckers for drugs; and all this in the rugged American West—but Hart avoids macho sentimentalism. His third-person narrator hews close to the perceptions of Bandy, Tracy, and Iona. Hart tells the story through dialogue and employs plain description, using very few commas—two of his favorite words, judging by the frequency of their use, are and and then: "The fire caught and Iona fed it and waited then fed it again." "Tracy greased a skillet and put it on the stove to warm then made coffee." Much of the novel reads like this.
The narrative often feels abrupt—restless and impatient. Tracy meets the sister of the cop his father killed, and the encounter leads nowhere. Characters allude to Idaho's scattershot gentrification, but no details credit these observations. Late in the book, we see Bandy freezing by the side of the river; we rejoin him after six weeks, and Hart provides only passing mention of time "on a road crew" followed by panhandling and a brief stay in jail. It feels like a shortcut.
Such gaps undermine the characterization. Iona progresses from drug addiction and joblessness to sobriety and steady work, but just how she does so is unclear. Tracy has a fear of heights that is essential to one scene, then never mentioned again. And the secondary characters, not surprisingly, are even spottier. Hart writes restrained prose, avoids cliché, and knows his territory (at one point he beautifully observes the "amber water" of the Lochsa River, "like thin, new oil in the sun"). What's missing is the patience to allow his people the narrative tether their lives require.