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SOFT WATER by Robert Olmstead

SOFT WATER

by Robert Olmstead

Pub Date: March 12th, 1988
ISBN: 0394757521
Publisher: Vintage/Random House

Olmstead's first novel is a drawn out melodrama of love and underworld murder in rural New England. By the author of the story collection River Dogs (1987). Asel and Averell are the orphaned brothers of backwoods (Maine) parents who fished and trapped for a livelihood. After their accidental death, young Asel is raised by a brutal German farmer named Borst; later (still unable to read or write), he works for older brother Averell deep in the Maine woods, as a scout and guide for big-city "sports" who come, in their decadent manner, to drink and shoot. All goes well until Averell mysteriously disappears, and Asel lives on in their hunting cabin for three years, trapping furs for a decent-minded middleman and wrestling with a Great and Tormenting Secret. The secret--not revealed until the close--is that Asel has murdered two especially depraved "sports" who seemed, on top of it, to have some kind of strangle-hold on Averell. What the reader does learn early on, however, is that three years alone in the wilderness drive Asel to acknowledge his need for Woman. He sets out for New Hampshire, where the middleman has arranged contacts for him, and he ends up living with an erstwhile VISTA volunteer (and now schoolteacher) named Phoebe King, who has troubles of her own (a husband-in-name-only who died in Vietnam; a tyrannical father; an absent mother) that give her, frequently, a tendency to cry. An atmosphere of angst and shapeless foreboding hovers over the lives of Asel and Phoebe ("You know, sometimes I try to figure it all out and I can't"). There will be scenes of farm life; the beery antics of local rustics; a woman who hangs herself in the forest ("We all kill ourselves in the end," philosophizes Asel. "Some of us need help. Some of us don't"); and a scene (impeccably rendered) of Asel butchering an ox as the novel waits sluggishly for its ending to come about: return to the north woods; sudden appearance of central-casting gangsters; shootings and a house on fire; one last murder; and returning Asel's closing embrace with the waiting-at-home Phoebe. Half and half: crisply observed set-pieces robustly written, the whole placed into an ambience of made-for-TV soap.