Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

Hardcover, 272 pages January 24th 2017 by Scribner ISBN 1501126377 (ISBN13: 9781501126376)

Krivák takes his own blessed time when telling stories. His novels are quiet, but not especially slow; they are full of drama, generations of crises. It has been five years since the publication of Krivák's quietly spectacular first novel, The Sojourn, which followed the sharpshooter Jozef Vinich during World War I. This book, it turns out, follows Vinich’s family, based now in the hill country of northeastern Pennsylvania, where they run a mill.

War and its opposite, peace, are inescapable twin themes running through Krivák’s work, lacing the generations together. We are introduced to the Irishman silversmith who landed penurious in New York, only to be conscripted into the Union army, fighting at Gettysburg, one of the last men standing. Afterward he built a snug and comfortable house that lasted well, uninhabited, for many years until it again became a happy home.

Jozef’s grandson Sam goes to Vietnam, a corporal, and is missing in action. But Sam had the noticing, or attention, gene that Jozef had exploited in the earlier conflict to keep himself alive: “Just movement like the breeze, except there was no breeze that day.” No one wants to believe Sam is dead. His brother and mother hold the fort at home, missing him, waiting for him to come back one day.

The family history is complicated, threads overlapping and woven into the fabric of that small area where everyone knew everyone else. But Krivák patiently and clearly relates the relevant histories with their attendant tragedies and small successes until those histories are as clear as our own. When, in the final pages, Hannah stands near the corner of her land and finds a smooth-barked beech with the generations of family carved into its side, we know just who is being described. JV + HP, BK + HV, BK + AD, SK + RY, each set of carving clearer in its presence on the tree’s skin. What is so remarkable is how long the family lasted in that place, without moving or shipping anchor, and the violence done to the dreams of each in that place one might think of as sleepy, or otherwise passed by.

The attention to language, to the unhurried unfurling of a long-form mystery, is Krivák’s special skill. We often ask the question, “how did this happen?” but we rarely have the patience to hear the answer. Krivák makes it interesting enough that listening is no chore, recalling as it does the lives of each of us in its moments of kismet and inevitability, love and violence, birth and death.

What I liked best, perhaps, was the genuine kindness even in the confusion among people. There is no triumphalism over the indignities of failure, but neither is there any abnegation of responsibility. These Americans accept responsibility for their forefather’s actions, strive to understand, and be better for any mistakes made. They are capable of change, of understanding, and forgiveness. It is a remarkably uplifting fiction, despite the difficulties each family undergoes.

One of the more delicious descriptions in the book is the occasion of a day trip to West Virginia from northeast Pennsylvania. Despite nothing out of the ordinary happening, we greet this part of the story with the excitement children might feel when told of a trip away. Krivák’s descriptions thrill us with their clarity and accuracy: we know of whom he writes.

Another description that catches a moment perfectly is this description of Sam's brother Bo fishing with the parish priest, whom Bo wanted to ask for advice:
"The split up on the stream, Bo took the faster water up top and fished with a muddler minnow. Father Rovnávaha worked a black ant in a lower pool where brookies were rising to terrestrials. In all this time from house to stream, they had said no more than five words to each other."
They sat streamside on rocks for a coffee break, Bo walking to the edge to pick a mayfly off a stone. They'd been using the wrong flies. Then Bo broached the topic that was troubling him.

There is no sensationalism here. Krivák writes about a time long gone, fifty and more years ago. It is a small, almost private novel, about making a wooden hutch for someone as a Christmas present, and when placed in their home, “looks like it had always been here.” The fiction has something of that inevitable feel, as though it weren’t made-up at all, but memoir, and deeply felt. These are beautifully written and constructed novels, and there is room for more, if Krivák wanted to move into the controversies of a modern-day novel. I read later that these will be a trilogy. Read them in any order, but don't miss them.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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