If the words “first novel” and “arrival of a major American talent” appear on the front flap of a dust jacket, you can almost be sure that the picture on the back flap will depict some impossibly lovely product of good breeding and expert dentistry, a sloe-eyed or square-jawed recent graduate of one of the top-tier creative writing programs, with a face made up to hide the blemishes of acne scars not too distantly inflicted. Big-time publishing is now as enamored of youth as every other aspect of the culture, and aspiring writers seem to be losing their virginity at ever younger ages to an industry that came rather late to the realization that sex can sell mediocre books as well as it sells anything else.
It’s something of a surprise, then, to come upon two first novels written by balding guys in their 50s. In addition to this superficial similarity, both books explore the dislocations forced on families touched by tragedy during the Great Depression. Though neither Waterborne nor The Vanishing Moon is without flaws, each is an ambitious effort that heralds the arrival of an intriguing pentagenarian talent.
In Waterborne, Bruce Murkoff steers four characters toward a fateful meeting at the Boulder Dam–later renamed for President Hoover–during its epic building in the 1930s. The first half of the book gives us these characters’ histories in alternating strands of flashback; the second half vividly evokes the construction of the dam near the anomalous oasis of Las Vegas, a newborn city flush with vice and cash at a time when the rest of the country is mired in dust and degradation.
Filius Poe is an engineer from Wisconsin whose son drowned in a sailing accident, whose wife later died of a broken heart and whose only remaining dream is to be a part of the damming of the Colorado River. Lena McCardell is a divorcée from Oklahoma who comes west with her young son Burr at the behest of her best friend, who tantalizes them with visions of a fresh start in the desert. And Lew Beck is a pitiless man whose near-midget size disguises a vicious temper that spreads a trail of blood and death in its wake.
Murkoff’s prose style is vigorous and ruggedly American, inflected with a pinch of Bellow and DeLillo, and he’s at his best when he applies it to the grandeur of the Western landscape, or scenes of men massed in industrial armies to tame that landscape. When Filius takes Lena for a look at the dam site–an unconventional means of courting, to say the least–we see it through her dazzled eyes:
Rows of powerful arc lights lined the banks of the river, their wide beams trained on the trestle bridge and the long line of trucks that lumbered forward in the cobalt haze. Lena watched their vast shadows slowly transmogrify into eerie abstractions and demonic contortions, then shrink into boxy clarity as the trucks came closer to the lights. Flagmen who walked into the beams were turned into colossal shadow puppets, their profiles stretched in ghoulish caricature, and below all the bright lights, the river flowed as harsh and roughskinned as hammered steel.
For all his facility as a poet of collective endeavors, Murkoff falters with the fine points. Too many of his subsidiary characters are clichés: Lena’s ex-husband, for instance, a pious traveling salesman of religious literature who–surprise–practiced bigamy on the sly; or the lingerie salesman who gives Lena and Burr a lift across the desert and who–surprise–tries to slip his hand up Lena’s dress while she naps in the passenger seat. Lew Beck, who sleeps with his thumb in his mouth, spends the novel wreaking havoc on the skulls of anyone who so much as looks cross-eyed at him–a violent streak we’re meant to believe is the result of his having been picked on as a boy for being a runt. His Oedipal issues run so deep we can only assume he hates his father for bequeathing him downsized DNA. On rare visits home to Los Angeles, he wings a hammer through Papa’s butcher-shop window, or breaks the old man’s fingers for kicks.