Reading the second novel before the first

"The Hour of Lead" by Bruce HolbertWhen I read an author’s second novel — and I’ve not read the first one — I feel like I’ve walked into a show in the second act. I’m not talking about novels in a series, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or detective sequences. This is about literary novels or stand-alones, and it happens especially when the first book, the author’s debut, is a five-star stunner that I’ve missed for one reason or another.

When the second novel comes out, I’m eager to get acquainted with the new, lauded writer. My expectations are high. I’m thinking I’ll be swept away with awesomeness, but many times the second novel doesn’t measure up to expectations created from what I’ve read about the amazing debut. That’s where I stand with The Hour of Lead, Bruce Holbert’s new, second novel.

Similar to his first novel (which I haven’t read), it takes us deep into the culture of the American West in Washington state. The Hour of Lead, without a doubt, is written with gorgeous prose, the kind that loops around a thought in long, poetic sentences, evoking impressionistic images of the territory. The strength of the story lies in a tragedy that takes place in 1918, in the first pages, and rings in an echo throughout the rest of the book: A monumental snow storm suddenly sweeps into Lincoln County, Washington, taking the life of protagonist Matt Lawson’s twin brother and father. The event permanently unsettles Matt’s sense of himself. He’s unable to fully love and remains constantly vulnerable to simmering rage. We care about him, and that’s what saves this otherwise problematic novel.

Matt as a teenager, alone with his mother, continues to run the family farm. Wendy, the grocer’s daughter, becomes Matt’s first and only love, but their relationship is shattered by a gross misunderstanding. Wendy delivers her rejection with a gunshot wound, and Matt vanishes like an injured animal. He finds jobs away from home, eventually settling in as a dedicated workman for a 70-year-old man whose lazy son gambles and drinks. Meanwhile, Wendy, feeling guilty, moves in with Matt’s mother to help on the farm.

Nineteen years pass until Matt is able to face Wendy again. His return comes at a time when the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is breaking apart the area’s farms. So, too, at this point, does the story break apart. Events are colorful, violent and dramatic, but they equate to plot movement without engagement, and lose our emotional tie to the heart of the story — of Matt as a broken man, who knows being the one survivor of the snow storm changed him forever and confesses to Wendy, “I’m not right.” Also, those gorgeous sentences begin to feel forced and wrestled.

Matt and Wendy marry, raise two children and scrape by with Matt’s job on the Coulee Dam. Their story ends in Hallmark fashion, surrounded by grandchildren. What we are to make of it all, I’m not sure, with no sense of resolution or meaning – no fundamental gift from the storytelling given to us upon the last page, where the author is merely clever and has lost the atmosphere and pull of Matt’s story.

Whether or not I read Bruce Holbert’s first novel, Lonesome Animals, remains to be determined. Reading a debut after the second novel isn’t the same as experiencing an author’s first, fresh, exciting burst onto the literary scene. Meanwhile, I just finished Tom Rachmann’s debut The Imperfectionists, published four years ago. It’s a terrific novel about editors and reporters working for an English newspaper based in Rome, now out in paperback. I read it because Rachmann’s second novel is out this summer, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. I wanted to be ready for it.


2 thoughts on “Reading the second novel before the first

  1. So true about many authors who write stunningly good first novels but fall short in their much-anticipated second novels. On the other hand, it’s a sweet treat when a novelist grows and matures and later novels are so much better than the first! It’s a treasure hunt!


  2. It is indeed a sweet treat to watch novelists mature through their work. It’s one of the reasons I like to read consecutively. Donna Tartt is an example of this: her debut “The Secret History” was a great book, her second “The Little Friend” not so great. And then her third, “The Goldfinch,” won the Pulitzer Prize this year.


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