Jeffrey Lent's first novel, "In the Fall," earned him comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. With "Lost Nation," we'll have to go back a little further, say, to Euripides. This remarkable tragedy sets the bar pretentiously high, but then somehow surpasses it.
The story is loosely based on a rebellious moment of American history, the short-lived efforts of a group in upstate New Hampshire to secede from the Union two decades before the Southern Confederacy made the same disastrous effort.
The novel opens with a trader named Blood leading an oxcart to Indian Stream. His enormous dog glides alongside like a familiar. Leashed to the back of the cart is a 16-year-old girl he won in a card game. Both of them know their place in this business: Sally considers Blood a better prospect than her mother's whorehouse; Blood regards Sally as another staple to offer customers, along with rum and lead.
I feared I was about to endure a backwoods version of "Pretty Woman," but, of all the horrors in this story, the obscenity of that cliché isn't one of them. Lent proves himself capable of making improbable relationships captivatingly real. When Sally claims that she's "tougher'n dried cod," she's not just boasting. Early in their journey, she hypnotizes a pack of wolves with "the high drawn pitched cry of her soul." And then blasts one to smithereens.
But she knows better than to mess with Blood, an enigmatically cultured brute who makes his instructions straightforward and enforces them with ferocious abuse. He's a tortured soul, "a man self-shorn of choice," who senses something redemptive about Sally but refuses to allow himself the benefit of her friendship. He trusts no one, above all "the farce of happiness."
The rough settlement of Indian Stream provides little welcome, but men congregate quickly at his shop to sample rum and Sally. Lent spares us none of the mechanics of this enterprise, but what's captivating is the way Blood and Sally gradually shift into a partnership complicated by deep affection.
The girl's early exposure to men gives her an appreciation for Blood's peculiar scruples and enough sense to fear his discipline. They're both wounded, but Sally retains a degree of hope for the future that Blood has burnt to ash in the furnace of his guilt.
Together they encounter a community charged with the static electricity of savagery. The settlers, caught in a no man's land of conflicting claims by Canada and New Hampshire, live in a kind of insomniac's despair, constantly alert for the sounds of soldiers, or Indians, or trappers gone mad with hunger.
Soon after Blood sets up shop, a string of murders ignites the dry timber of these people's fear. Lent renders the terror of this place with unrelenting energy. Three particularly gruesome murders crash into these woods with such ferocity that I momentarily confused Sally's screams for my own.
In "a country teeming with gathering madness," the settlers turn to Blood's leadership even as they begin to suspect him, the brooding newcomer who's brought them comforts they're ashamed of. Exhausted from years of running from the law and his own dreadful fantasies, Blood is willing to believe that "this is just an incident. Things'll settle down."
But in this dank setting, the reticence that has served him well for so long ferments into a poison of suspicion. Soon he finds himself having to defend his treatment of Sally, even as he begins to consider it untenable himself.
The men in this "enshrouded, bereft land" have good reason to avoid legal scrutiny Blood most of all but when these murders attract the attention of governments north and south, he's drawn into a conflict that tests his conviction that "men are the agents of their own fate." Consumed with the "monstrosity of himself," Blood holds such a death grip on guilt that his soul has atrophied in a cramped embrace. Haunted by an abominable crime against his family, he's a tragic character on the order of Lear. Lent renders his story in a spectacular fury of language that cracks and flashes with desperate insight into the nature of remorse and redemption.
There are battles captured here with such raw clarity that you expect to find gunpowder stains on your hands when you put the book down. But the more stunning conflicts in this new masterpiece take place in a heart divided against itself.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.