The Bully of Order
Here's another good example of a book that I very much wanted to like. Brian Hart's historical set piece, which examines the seedier side of life in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the 20th century, certainly maintains a clear thematic focus throughout, tracing the history of one of the fictional Harbor's early families and charting the effects of the various personal disasters that befall them. From the start, it seems like Hart is onto something by choosing to focus not on the town's leading families but on a man whose entire presence in the Harbor is predicated on a lie. And indeed, Hart does not flinch when exploring the terrible deeds that humans are capable of doing, in all of their complexity and, too often, horror. He clearly appreciates the many shades of gray between wrongs- those he presents run the gamut from a woman's catch-22 decision to abandon her family instead of facing a sadistic rapist to a cut-and-dried villain's cold-blooded murders, and from accidents to the coldest calculations- but he displays an unfortunate tendency toward the extreme. Whether his characters are bizarrely obsessed with a particular adjective (one that I hadn't encountered previously and that struck me as inauthentic every time it popped up) or admitting to heinous crimes that have absolutely no function other than pure, pointless shock value in a book that doesn't otherwise rely on gore porn, their author often drives them to the point of pure exaggeration, extracting nothing that adds to the story in any meaningful way.
With all of its repeated failures in this regard, it is surprising that The Bully of Order is as good as it is. Among the author's strange reliance on the irrelevant are some truly interesting explorations of human nature and moral ambiguity, set convincingly against his chosen historical backdrop. The fin de siècle Northwest is utterly believable, from its burgeoning towns to Portland's growing metropolis to the region's still-expansive wilderness. It's a shame, then, that the characters and plot can't quite match up to this internal gold standard. The plot itself has, as I mentioned, some engrossing moments and sudden twists both seen and unforeseen. When the characters do act in reasonably believable ways, they are appropriately sympathetic and/or frustrating, and their stories likewise hold the reader's sustained interest. Unfortunately, the book often feels inflated with unnecessary events and side stories, and it is unclear whether Hart is attempting to build a community-wide portrait or whether he intends to focus more intently on the members of the Ellstrom family.
The novel suffers for this indecision, and for Hart's uneven handling of the novel's necessary- but often awkward- chronological jumps. His use of varying narrative voices indicates a fair amount of authorial skill, with each voice sufficiently differentiated from the others, but his juggling of narratives and interests is not always as deft as his story demands and often contributes to the general feeling that the book, for all its strength of setting, ultimately lacks focus. Thus, too, with the ending, which is capped by an utterly unnecessary- to the point of baffling- epilogue and a return of the displaced loggers' narration that pops up occasionally, to varying effect. There is a lot to be said for Brian Hart's ability to weave an interesting tale and for his willingness to explore criminality and the downtrodden in an often-romanticized era, but the resulting book is just a bit too cluttered and self-aware to be truly effective. The Bully of Order has excellently rendered scenery and occasional moments of insight, but it ultimately cannot withstand the alternate tedium and chaos that, unfortunately, come to dominate both the book and its characters.