Less than two years after making his literary debut with a story collection called Once You Break a Knuckle, Britain-based B.C. expat D.W. Wilson is back with a novel filled with guns, fighting, booze, fathers and philosophical musing on fate.
With this new book, Wilson stakes his claim for the title of manliest Canadian literary-fiction author, or at any rate, author of the manliest Canadian literary fiction.
Ballistics has many of the identifying features of Canadian literary fiction: a small-town setting, polished prose, intertwining past and present narratives that move toward a big revelation. Its haunted men and matter-of-fact violence may call to mind the work of such American authors as Richard Ford and Russell Banks.
It's a story of fathers and their children, of love and betrayal, and of violent acts that arise from long-simmering animosities. And largely it's a story of fate, with chapters introduced by classical epigraphs, such as this, attributed to Ovid and Heraclitus.
"Fate leads those who follow it and drags those who resist. Every creature is driven to pasture with a blow."
There are plenty of blows in Ballistics, many of them followed by do-it-yourself suturing, usually without anesthetic. Wilson's characters have a high tolerance for physical pain.
The story begins in Invermere, B.C., with the narrator's crusty grandfather suffering a non-fatal heart attack, in the wake of which the narrator, Alan, is sent to find his long-lost father. In a parallel narrative, the grandfather's one-time friend, a Vietnam War deserter named Archer, slowly tells the story of the events that led to Alan's father's disappearance.
In the course of the novel, good people do bad things, relationships are torn apart and the inability to deal with emotions leads to sudden, inexplicable acts of violence.
The title of the novel refers to its central metaphor for fate.
"How it all began -- that's a good question," Alan says. "That's a philosophical question. It's like asking when a bullet starts toward the beer can. Is it at the moment slug exits muzzle? When I lean on the trigger? Somewhere among those hours spent checking and rechecking the chamber?"
Later, Wilson uses bullet metaphors for life again: "An object set on a path will remain on that path unless an outside force acts against it. That's not philosophy, that's just physics. Bullets more or less fly straight. People, in general, maintain course toward destiny."
In keeping with the testosterone-laced atmosphere of his writing -- filled with gruff, tough, physically scarred, working-class characters -- Wilson's philosophy is a macho one. We are what we do. We do what we do because of who we are.
Much of the novel hinges on an incident, a fight at a high school party, that Wilson never shows us. Perhaps that's his way of saying that turning points don't actually exist outside of fiction, that our fate is determined by character or by the gods, rather than those key crystallizing events loved by writers of novels and short stories.
Or, as one pivotal exchange puts it: "Why is he like that?"
"That's the question. That is the question."
Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg novelist and playwright.