Deep River Night, award-winning poet Patrick Lane’s second novel, feels like a cross between the early novels of Cormac McCarthy, which revolve around sudden eruptions of violence in rural areas where savagery otherwise thrums as an undercurrent, and Sheila Watson’s marrying of mysticism to similar themes.
Lane’s story revolves around Art Kenning, an alcoholic veteran of World War II now working (in 1960) as a medic in a BC sawmill village. Art’s haunted by the war, having witnessed too much and felt like he did too little to stay its horrors.
A teenaged runaway, Joel, struggles less-dark demons, torn between his fascination with two women, one an abused indigenous girl purchased from a residential school for fifty dollars and locked nightly in a wire cage, let out daily to work at the local store.
Having published over 20 books of poetry, Lane’s stylistic skill is the novel’s great strength. Lane writes tense, muscular prose that strikes a perfect balance between a stark, simple clarity and dense, complicated images that have all the heft of a sharp, startling poem.
Early in the novel, Art stitches up a young boy, and the moment nicely displays Lane’s mingling of poetry and prose:
The needle binding the seam of Emerson’s wound was something far away from the body on the bed. The boy under Art’s hands was an osprey child moving feathered through the river currents in search of an elusive trout, a silver fish that was always almost in his talons and never was.
Lane's lines more often take dark, cutting imagery, the brutal slaughter of war or the casual cruelty of men in peacetime, as their subject. Lane always hits a perfect pitch with his prose style, no matter how light or dark:
One night when Ernie was working Joel had taken one of Ernie’s bear skulls down from the shelf and a funnel spider crawled from one of the eye sockets. Joel stared into the cavity at the web where the bear’s brain used to be. Some nights he dreamed of being pulled into such a tunnel, a white weave filling his lungs. The nightmare always woke him, Joel lifting from his pillow as he tried to get air into his chest.
The weakness is Lane’s plot. The action in most chapters is minimal, with Lane focusing on flashbacks or having characters relive traumas, so most of the novel is backstory exposition.
Although the story takes place over a mere two days, which might suggest a quick pace, its core events don't begin for some time. The novel's first quarter could be cut without affecting its plot.
The result is a slow build, where nearly nothing happens, and the story seems to be going nowhere. When events do begin to unfold, the backstory emphasis becomes frustrating, as Lane keeps retreating into character memories.
A related frustration is that characters, since they do not do much in the moment, and thus do not truly define themselves through taking action, don't depart far from being stereotype. This is most concerning when it comes to the poetry-spouting, opium-smoking Chinese cook. Wang Po has more depth that that sentence suggests, but the passivity of his character, and others, makes it difficult for Lane to display that depth.
Deep River Night remains a beautifully written, bold, and startling novel, but a sharper focus on the plot's progression and more complex, active characters would have brought more force to the story.