We tend to talk about stories as if they're straight lines, routes from one point to another, with a beginning, middle and end. But fiction is just like life —- we're suspicious of neat plotlines and tidy endings, because nothing in the real world ever works out that way. Every bad story has one perspective and one moral, with no complications that can't be solved by a wave of the author's hand. Every great story contains a thousand other stories, collapsing and expanding by turns until the reader is no longer sure what to think.
In his new novel, "Prudence," David Treuer does a masterful job exploring the multiple stories that culminate in the death of a young woman in small-town Minnesota. The novel opens with the discovery of the title character's body in a room above a bar. Pages later, the reader is taken back 10 years, to a Chicago family's riverside resort called the Pines, where a young man has arrived for a vacation before being sent to Europe to fight in World War II.
The young man, Frankie Washburn, is "cheerful but serious; pleasant in conversation and able to keep up" but marked with "a fearful reserve, a watchful, waiting, measuring consciousness." His mother, Emma, is devoted and constantly nervous; his father, Jonathan, is cold and judgmental. Emma dotes on her son and tolerates her husband: "The house in Oak Park was a proper house and theirs was a proper marriage. She never worried about the solidity of either, but nor did she exult in them. They just were and always would be."
Frankie arrives at the Pines just after a German prisoner of war has escaped from a camp across the river. He agrees to join a search party with Felix, the resort's handyman, and Billy, a young Native American man to whom Frankie is strongly devoted. A friend catches Frankie and Billy sharing an intimate moment, and the two panic; in the ensuing confusion, two girls are hit with a shotgun blast. Prudence survives; her sister does not.
"Prudence" is told through multiple viewpoints, with alternating chapters focusing on the various characters. This isn't always the easiest narrative trick to pull off, but Treuer ("Little," "Rez Life") proves remarkably adept at capturing the thoughts and the voices of all the people affected by the tragedy in the woods. He reveals the particular sadness behind each character, from the sweet, conflicted Frankie to the aloof, distant Jonathan.
And it is sadness that dominates this novel. Frankie is a heartbreaking character, whose "agony as a child had been the result of his good nature" and who joins the military to obtain "freedom from humor, freedom from socializing, freedom from feeling." His relationship with Billy is one of the most affecting in recent fiction — in a letter Frankie sends his friend, he fantasizes about the two moving away: "Just you and me. No one will know us. They won't even know our names. They won't know where we're from or what we've done or what we've seen."
"Prudence" is also a novel about identities and what happens when they clash as they did in 1940s America and continue to do today. Emma and Jonathan patronize the Native Americans they encounter — Felix, Billy and the girls who help out around the resort — and are oblivious to their son's intimate relationship with Billy, whom they seem to consider as something a little less than a real person. And although his love for Billy is pure and true, Frankie is reluctant to stand up for him when his friends make mocking remarks about Billy's heritage.
But love is never simple; it's usually contradictory and confusing. And "Prudence" isn't so much a love story as a series of love stories, of relationships that form and disintegrate in the face of unspeakable tragedy and pain. Treuer realizes that the things people tend to hold dear — history, heritage, themselves and one another — are more complex and intricate than we sometimes realize. It's the intersections of all these things that inspire the stories behind the story in "Prudence" and make it one of the most honest, moving novels about America in quite a while.
Schaub is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas.
Riverhead: 272 pp., $27.95