D.W. Wilson’s first book, 2011’s Once You Break a Knuckle, was a collection of brutal tales about guilt-ridden, impulsive fathers and sons with a taste for cheap beer and tendency toward messy violence, mostly set in the landlocked area of B.C. that lies hard up against the Rocky Mountains. The collection stirred up a lot of attention here and in the U.K. (where the B.C.-raised Wilson currently lives): one story nabbed the BBC Short Story Prize; the book as a whole was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Wilson’s first novel feels like a couple of outtakes from that collection mashed together and given a forcible pneumatic expansion. The book’s ample length allows him to explore his overriding obsession with the stresses and cracks lurking within working-class masculinity and the complicated act of being a father. It also, however, allows Wilson to indulge in mountain-sized pseudo-epic portentousness.
Ballistics is a dual narrative. Alan West is a philosophy student who returns to his hometown of Invermere, B.C., right in the middle of the 2003 wildfires. At the request of his dying paternal grandfather, Alan agrees to seek out his father, Jack, who took off when Alan was a baby.
The other story is of Archer Cole, Alan’s maternal grandfather, an American Army deserter who was horribly scorched by napalm in Vietnam and hides out in Invermere with his daughter, whom Jack falls in love with and eventually gets pregnant. Archer goes with Alan to find Jack, only to be overtaken by the violence and anger in their shared past.
Before that happens, Wilson allows his characters to engage in countless macho standoffs (the women in the book don’t do much more than fret), as well as page-length ruminations about the deeper meaning of their current problems. (At one point, Alan actually pulls onto the shoulder of the highway in order to have a good long think about things.) Wilson also fills the book with riffs on the persistence of the past and quotes from ancient philosophers, all of which slowly starve the narrative of oxygen and feel like an author prodding his readers to see his story in more epic terms than it warrants.
At its best, this novel is a smartly written, if still somewhat sentimental story about guilt and inheritance, but at nearly 400 pages, it’s a frequently exhausting and unsatisfying ride.