In his impressive fiction debut, The Alleys of Eden, Butler made much from the fraught silences and intervals between two very life-sized characters. Here, however, in a disappointing second novel, the emphasis is on a clutch of overstated metaphorical situations. Wilson Hand is a private-eye who's been hired by an oil company to go up to the North Slope oil fields and investigate the filching of secret documents concerning production capacities. And, in Alaska, Wilson--who's haunted by his ex-wife's recent suicide and by memories of Vietnam-war torture--encounters two sources of inspiration: Clyde Mazer, a brave, cowboyish bush-pilot; and the cool Marta, with whom Wilson initiates a long, near-wordless sexual relationship that seems predicated almost purely on physical need. But Marta, it turns out, has something to do with the document thefts. So here--and throughout the novel, whether the subject-matter is snow, sex, oil, or madness--Butler constantly underlines his theme: the mysteriousness of need, and the private/public shortage of supply to ever meet that need. And, while grindingly earnest, this message-approach results in a slow-paced, colorless novel--in which scenes follow one another dutifully, without imagination or energy. Something of a setback for a promising writer, reading more like a discarded first novel than a confident second one.