A powerful impression of waste, loss, and guilt elevates the melodramatic and rather contrived content of this ambitious second novel by Vermont author Lent (In the Fall, 2000).
It’s 1838, in the wilderness area between northern New Hampshire and Canada known as the Indian Stream in 1838, when an itinerant trader called Blood arrives in the Stream, accompanied by a teenaged girl named Sally, whom he had won in a card game with the girl’s wretched mother. In intensely charged prose very reminiscent of Faulkner’s, Lent spins the mesmerizing tale of Blood’s establishment as a prosperous tavernkeeper (his fortunes increased by “whoring” out the phlegmatic and resilient Sally), conflicts with both the territory’s vindictive high sheriff and British “royal soldiers” occupying Canada (whose factions struggle for control over the Stream and its settlers), and painstaking revelations of secrets buried in the pseudonymous Blood’s past—unearthed by the arrival of two half-brothers from Massachusetts, who have their own mysteries to solve and scores to settle. This is an extremely violent book (as well as quite clearly indebted to Cormac McCarthy’s notorious Blood Meridian), whose excesses of situation and plot are more than compensated for by Lent’s remarkable command of atmosphere and gift for flinty, stark characterizations. Blood is a magnificently dramatic figure, Lear-like in his stoical resolve and in the fury that consumes him when an unforeseen forgiveness for all his actual and imagined sins is suddenly, cruelly ripped away. Sally is equally memorable: a child woman who assumes a hard-bitten maturity, the consequences of which are movingly spelt out in the ingenious (if somewhat awkwardly assembled) Postlude. Lost Nation further satisfies as a suggestive allegory of a fledgling civilization’s loss of innocence and helpless pursuit of self-destructive folly.
Lent is a writer who seems determined to scale some pretty formidable rhetorical and thematic heights. He’s getting there.