Orvis (The Place, 2015) tells a sprawling tale of a Utah family, set against the upheavals of the mid-20th century.
It’s 1950 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rusty Van Cott has been mortally injured in a gas tank explosion, and his siblings, including his best friend and brother, Bud; his mother; and assorted in-laws surround his hospital bed. Rusty’s injuries overwhelm Bud, but the sight sends his mind tumbling through memories of riding the rails as a bum in the early 1930s, fighting the Japanese on an island during World War II, and surviving a poor childhood under the abusive rule of their alcoholic father, Kurt. The moment that shaped Bud’s life, however, was the dynamite blast that blew off several fingers. Already dyslexic and a poor speaker, the accident left him with only “buds” on one hand, with which he nevertheless became a military sharpshooter. Through most of their lives, Bud and Rusty were inseparable because they shared an understanding: Rusty was handsome, swaggering, and fearless, while Bud followed in his shadow, enjoying a spiritual awakening that nobody else in their Mormon community approved of. Author Orvis thrives on luring readers into dark corners and offers page after page of gritty Americana. Most of the chapters are from Bud’s perspective—though a few belong to his mother, Opal—and his memories flow smoothly through the eras. Segments focusing on boxcar hobos, Japanese soldiers, and Kurt’s frequently unleashed belt are studies in violence. These are balanced by scenes in Utah’s splendid wilderness; the meditative Bud says, “Nobody knew how I thought or what I felt. Maybe that’s the way I hid my power.” The story is all the more harrowing considering that many of the grisly details of the Van Cotts’ survival—like eating the neighbor’s cats—plausibly happened to some families, somewhere. The thinnest element of the narrative is Kurt, who, as the villain, deserves to be more fleshed out. Otherwise, Orvis cuts deeply indeed.
An underdog tale for readers with steel nerves.