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Reviewed by Nathan M. Beauchamp for Readers' Favorite
While set at the foot of the Rockies in the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado, the style, themes, and prose of James Zerndt’s Brailling For Wile places it alongside the work of other literary “Midwestern” writers such as Kent Haruf and Richard Russo. Zerndt understands the interconnectedness of small towns and weaves together a half-dozen story lines into a cohesive whole. Each character stands distinct. Zerndt allows them the dignity of their beliefs, be they a fanatical masseur or a twelve-year-old boy flirting with nihilism after the suicide of his father. No condescension can be found in these pages, no hint of pedantry or sarcasm. Zerndt gives his characters their due and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Thoughtful nuances here and there prevent the novel from overwhelming the reader with the intensity of its themes. Suicide, alienation, religious extremism, loss of faith, the way families can fragment after tragedy —Zerndt is honest about all of them and doesn’t provide easy, trite answers, either as the author or using his characters to sermonize. Instead, he shows characters in flux, characters struggling with their circumstances, themselves, and the human condition. All with prose that is simple, poignant, and lovely. There’s a hopefulness to the narrative as well, a necessary offset to the themes Zerndt takes on. While darkness can enter any of our lives at any moment, the tenacity of the human spirit will win out in the end.
Perhaps this is the defining characteristic of Midwestern fiction: the belief that we are made better by community, made better by being known, made better by the togetherness that small towns and small communities can provide. While some writers romanticize the small town and others portray them as cesspools of dysfunction, Zerndt treats them as he does his characters: not as black or white but in necessary shades of gray.
The controlling metaphor of the novel (brailling; the act of feeling the surface of letters in a Scrabble bag in order to find specific ones) works well enough, though non-Scrabble players may not fully “get” it. There is a sense in which Zerdnt has tried to accomplish too much in this short novel. Some of the supporting metaphors and symbolism around coyotes felt a touch heavy-handed. Another minor weakness is that the language used by Mattias, a twelve-year-old boy, reads as a bit too sophisticated, too adult. His characterization wobbled here and there, but I suppose that exposure to death does have a way of aging children. Regardless, the narrative never strayed into outright unbelievable territory.
Compelling and evocative, Brailling For Wile isn’t an easy story but it is a worthwhile one. The well-drawn characters, lack of melodrama, and lovely prose make for a quick, intelligent read. I eagerly anticipate reading more of Zerndt’s work in the future.