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The Nightstand | September 2014

Anyone who reports for any length of time on writers gets accustomed to reading those short author bios that appear on the inside flap or the back cover of the book.

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Awards are cited and prestigious publications they've written for listed. Writers who aren't ashamed for anyone to know that they can't make a living as a full-time writer (the fate of many) will sometimes publish a laundry list of day jobs they've held to make ends meet. Take Brian Hart, for example, whose list reveals that he's worked "as a carpenter, factory boss, welder, drywall hanger, dishwasher, commercial fisherman, line cook, and janitor."

And framer of elevator shafts, as I learned after talking to Hart recently about his new novel, The Bully of Order. Hart is originally from a small town in Idaho but moved to Austin to study at the Michener Center for Writers. In 2006, his second year there, he was awarded the Keene Prize for Literature, which bestows $50,000 upon a University of Texas student who shows early promise. It is one of the largest prizes in the world given to writing students. "I didn't know how to handle it," Hart says now. "I'd never had anything like that."

The judges for the Keene Prize should feel vindicated for having chosen Hart. His first novel, Then Came the Evening, received rave reviews, and The Bully of Order is already earning him comparisons to . . . oh, a certain scribbler named Cormac McCarty. Hart isn't unhappy with the comparison, though he does say that "every time I turn around it seems like I'm being bracketed with McCarthy."

That might be because the two writers share a rough-hewn lyricism that's deeply invested in depicting violence and its repercussions. The Bully of Order is set in Harbor, a fictitious logging town in the Pacific Northwest, at the end of the 19th century. Dr. Jacob Ellstrom has moved there with his wife, Nell, as the novel opens; they have a son, but Dr. Ellstrom, it's soon revealed, isn't a doctor at all. (He's more of a charlatan.) Hart lets Jacob, Nell, and the small town's union organizer, among others, each tell his or her own story in shifting points of view that create a dark, riveting kaleidoscope of a read.

It's also a read that isn't always easy, though the those who persevere are rewarded with a richly emotional story. Hart acknowledges that he wanted to make The Bully of Order a "complex" novel without making it so dense that readers would be turned off. "My favorite reading experiences are the ones you have to fight yourself into. That's happened time and again with books I love—they demand more," Hart says. "If you do the work, you're even deeper into that world. That's what I was after."

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Time Travel

Hart’s previous novel, Then Came the Evening, has a more contemporary setting than his new novel. In The Bully of Order, Hart fully inhabits the late 19th century. “Some of the other historical novels I’ve read have the time stamp, they get the facts right, but they’re so boring,” he says. Other recently published historical novels that persuasively pull off the trick of time travel include:

  • Song of the Shank
  • By Jeffrey Renard Allen

Based on the actual life of Thomas Wiggins, a blind, autistic slave in antebellum Georgia who became a piano prodigy and international star who played for President James Buchanan, Allen’s novel is wise and imaginative.

  • Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
  • By Francine Prose

Just before the Nazis rose to power, there was a decadent nightclub in Paris where misfits and rebels could gather. At the center of this atmospheric story is dancer, athlete, German spy and race car driver Lou Villars.

  • Everything I Never Told You
  • By Celeste Ng

Set in 1977 as a teenage girl is found mysteriously drowned in a lake near an Ohio college town, Ng’s sensitive debut novel is about race and family but Ng keeps the suspense tightly wound as to why a girl who never liked the water rowed herself to the middle of that lake. – C.S.

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