Last year, D W Wilson made an impact with his debut collection of short stories, Once You Break a Knuckle, 12 tales examining the vagaries of working class father-son relationships set against the dramatic backdrop of the Kootenay mountains of western Canada.
Ballistics, his debut novel, has much in common with that first book – the same themes and setting, the same flinty, hard-edged prose. But while his short fiction worked wonderfully as chiselled snapshots of people living a hard-scrabble life, this longer piece feels overworked and somewhat directionless.
Alan West is a twenty-something from Invermere, a small town in the Kootenays, who has escaped to study philosophy in the big city. He is brought back when his grandfather Cecil, who raised him, has a heart attack. Cecil survives but demands that Alan go to look for his long-lost father Jack and bring him back for some last-minute atonement.
We also get a second narrative delivered by Archer, a Vietnam veteran who, back in the day, went Awol with his daughter to Canada , where he befriended Cecil, his girlfriend Nora and Cecil's son Jack.
Alan enlists the help of Archer, now dying of cancer, to find Jack, along the way absorbing swathes of family history leading up to the climactic events that split the close friends and family apart, leaving Cecil to raise Alan on his own.
That narrative device is executed a tad clumsily, and there's not enough differentiation between the voices of the two main characters. Alan's story as he searches for Jack slowly runs out of steam, leaving Archer's as the more compelling narrative, but even that takes a long time to get going.
Wilson can create a wonderfully tense scene, and his powers of description are often impressive. As Alan and Archer head into the hills to find Jack, they race against forest fires spreading across the valleys, and that constant burning presence works as a taut, nervy backdrop for the revelations to come.
But Wilson also dwells too long on this sort of stuff. The prose is sometimes too heavy with simile and metaphor, and the author's attempts at profundity feel a little forced on occasion. And his female characters amid this father-son macho-fest feel very thin indeed. There's no doubt that Wilson can write, but Ballistics feels like a misfire.