Sunday, October 05, 2014

Hunting Season: Revealing the Threat in ONLY THE DEAD, Vidar Sunstøl

Maybe you have to live in a place like Vermont -- or Minnesota, or Wyoming, or even Oregon or Alaska, maybe Maine ... a few more -- to grasp the powerful mix of emotions and motives in play during hunting season. Because I live among hunters and the hunted, I found Vidar Sundstøl's newest translated title, ONLY THE DEAD, entirely compelling, engrossing, and so grimly effective that it silenced me for hours afterward (not counting sleep time). It may be the most powerful work of suspense I've ever read. And oddly, strangely, marvelously, it's published by the University of Minnesota Press.

This is the second volume of an intense and amazing trilogy that translator extraordinaire Tiina Nunnally and the press are making available to American readers, one per year. Last December I savored all of the first volume, The Land of Dreams. (Review here.) The "Minnesota Trilogy" is dark, lush Scandinavian mystery writing (by a celebrated Norwegian author) but set in Minnesota, where so many Scandinavians settled. U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen's probing of his own Norwegian genealogy turned disturbing in the first book of the trilogy as he uncovered family ties to local Native Americans -- the tribal people of deep dreams, to which he'd thought only his ex-wife and their child (and of course his ex-wife's parents) were directly connected. Layering evidence from the past and present, Hansen then finds himself bound to a possible murder from the settlers' times, and simultaneously to frightening dishonesty among people he cares about in his community and family.

It's hard to say more without giving away too many of the sharp and necessary twists of The Land of Dreams here -- so I'll say it this way: In the second book, ONLY THE DEAD, Hansen enters a frightening dance of intent and secrets with his own brother, during an ice storm, during hunting season. The guns are real; so are the threats.

This volume is only 156 pages long -- far more slim than the first volume -- and I have to say it is as meticulously trimmed of unnecessary detail as a fine poem would be. Or a well-butchered and lean-muscled animal, captured for winter sustenance. There are few comparable books out there; maybe The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of them, or some of Alan Furst's painful and tender revelations of espionage in Eastern Europe. To compress the action and exalt the tension the way Sundstøl does here creates a haunted interlude in a very particular setting.

Here in Vermont, we do suffer an occasional "ice storm" -- a weather event when rain freezes as it lands, coating trees, houses, and roads with glistening and deadly ice. In ONLY THE DEAD, that menace is framed around firearms and mistrust and danger.

Highly recommended. Don't compare the price to the page count; compare it instead to the years this book will linger, and the way it will displace every other noir novel as it brings to life Cain and Abel, and reveals the presence of violence -- and how we can neglect to escape while we have a chance -- in our landscape and our minds.

And speaking of that landscape, actually, I take back what I said at the start. Having walked home in the dark on quite a few city streets ... the hunt will translate effectively from the Minnesota forests, to wherever you're living now.

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