I usually do not read the reviews from various other authors or critics that mar book covers or jackets (and test the patience and humor of graphic designers, no doubt) like graffiti on a library. But after I finished reading "Wilderness," I simply could not put the book away, so I looked over the out-of-context comments and, I sort of agreed with the high praise.
Lance Weller writes with the precision and seasoning that attest to work in the trenches---revisions, rejections, and more revisions---all part of the effort of crafting a fine novel. It is hard to pause and dig into the depth of this writing as the story pulls one along like a strong river. So I find myself going back, rereading short passages, admiring the fit and flow of the words or the cleverness of a simile: "The cool, stinging wind of a single bullet passed close to his cheek like the first quick kiss of a girl."
I still keep the book close so I can scoop out a few words or sentences and linger over them. (I tend to do this with Walker Percy novels, too.)
The story of Abel Truman is that of an every man who is dealt a series of body blows that should have stopped him in his tracks, both from the physical pain and the emotional anguish he experiences. Instead, he finds a way to clutch and hold the threads of humanity and kindness that run counter to the harshness, hate, cruelty, ignorance, and violence. The narrative spans two timelines, one during the events both preceding and following the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, the second 35 years later at the cusp of a new century, playing out on the coastal Pacific Northwest.
How Abel actually found his way there is not the story, but why he went and why he intended to leave are integral. Mr. Weller twists the two strands into one story, not seamless, but balanced, both full of moments of horror and splendor. Redemption, when it tries to flourish, seems short lived, and the men and women who live and die in this story each casts his or her own strong shadow over the landscape of the book. Abel Truman lurks more than looms at times, from a shadow who can somehow live through the carnage and madness of war in Virginia, to a man living alone and almost ghost like in the "far northwest corner of the United States." Abel, when we meet him, has lived his life largely alone, seeking the comfort of the stars from earthbound anguish and loss and living out his years with only the most bare-bones existence.
He knows that the causes of the Civil War still fester and that its long, jagged scars have not healed enough to hold the terrible events he and other combatants experienced at bay. But Truman is a paradox, a Yankee who fought with the Rebels, a succor for the needy and injured despite his own travails, a hard-boiled old man who loves his dog deeply. Mr. Weller uses his main character deftly to reveal what it was like to come upon the wounded, dead, and dying after a battle or to feel a deer die with his hands hovering over its slowing heart. The richness of the story matches well with Mr. Weller's style of writing, of taking his time to set up a scene then springing some unexpected or surprising conclusion, before moving on the next part of the story.
OK, back to the book. Good does not always mean an easy read, to be prepared for some discomforting depictions of life during the last third of the 19th century and be thankful this is not your story.
I have one quibble with the book that I must air here. It's the prologue. I wish that the prologue had been the epilogue and that I had not read it until I had finished the novel. I learned things in the prologue that I did not need to know that soon, things that, in my opinion, would be better learned at the end of the story.
(And I have a quibble with all the folks who in their quoted comments praise this novel as a debut or first work. Please stop. Every writer who endures long enough to get a work finally published got there over the bones of discarded, fractured, and incomplete works.)