“The Breath Before the Note”: Black River by S.M. Hulse

Grit lit is a special genre with rules, tropes, and stories that are all its own. In any other genre the situations that take place within these settings would be too dark, too violent, too dramatic, but within the realm of grit lit it’s normal for abuse, rape, drugs, alcohol, and the horrible sides of humanity to make frequent appearances. From the traditional southern stories of backwoods farmers to urban addicts, the genre embraces every dark cranny and uses them to tell touching stories. Black River by S.M. Hulse carries on this tradition and takes it a step further.

Wes Carver returns to his hometown of Black River, Montana to put two things to rest—his recently deceased wife and his past with a prisoner up for parole. For years, all he had was his job as a corrections officer and his passion for playing the fiddle, but after losing both to a prison riot all he had was his wife, Claire. Now that Claire’s gone it’s up to Wes to rediscover his passion, renew strained relations with his stepson, and find a new direction in life.

I would say that, at times, it feels that Hulse is going through a check list of grit lit tropes and filling in a box, but even though there are so many different backstories it isn’t too distracting. It does seem too coincidental that all of these characters would be in the same place and know each other, but small town life can be that way. The back cover should almost include trigger warnings for rape, torture, cancer, violence, suicide, and many other bad things. Most of these things work well for the story or don’t detract from it, but there is one plot point that seems thrown in rather than absolutely necessary.

The characters are fairly relatable, while not absolutely likeable, and they are fairly well-developed. Wes Carver is your standard, stuck-in-his-ways old man that goes to church every Sunday, holds in his emotions with an iron will, and doesn’t want to admit when he’s wrong. He’s a firm believer in apples not falling too far from trees, and he was a musical genius before Bobby Williams shattered his fingers. His stepson Dennis has tried to make an honest living for himself ever since Wes and Claire left Black River when he was sixteen due to violent tension between the two men. He’s not too thrilled about Wes’ staying with him, but will put up with him for his dear, departed mother’s sake. Even though Claire isn’t much alive for the narrative, flashbacks from her perspective help to round out of her character and make the reader more sympathetic to Wes’ loss. There’s Scott, the son of a convict, who may have musical talent that Wes can nurture but who also is viciously bullied at school.

There are a variety of other characters, but the main relationships are those between Wes and Dennis, Scott, and Claire. Most of the novel is introspection on Wes’ part about his marriage with Claire and her illness, his turbulent past with Dennis, and his hopes and worries about Scott. This is what sets it apart from other grit lit novels since many of them are more focused on action rather than thought. Although it does contain the small town monotony, the flashbacks and memories of days past, and answers many of the questions presented at the beginning of the novel. The turbulence between Scott and Wes is refreshing to read since many authors don’t tackle the difficulty than comes between stepparents and children during the teenage years and after the actual parent dies.

While the pacing does at times drag, it’s made up for with the characterization and sense of setting. The way that Hulse writes Wes’ passion for music is filled with such lyricism and unfulfilled longing for the fiddle that it will make readers’ hearts ache. Music is laced through each and every chapter of the book, and the fiddle and song “Black River” are almost as much characters as Claire and Scott.

This book would fit well with any grit lit collection—right between The Weight of Blood and Faulkner—as well as appealing to those people who know of or have seen the dark sides of small town life, people who love music so much they don’t know what they would do without it, and sixty year old men who have problems expressing their emotions and pain. While it is not the perfect grit lit novel, Black River by S.M. Hulse is certainly an impressive debut and a good introspective read.