Diverting a river, turning a heart

The Hoover Dam unleashed a nation's pent-up ambitions

Bruce Murkoff's debut novel, "Waterborne," braves all the challenges of its monumental subject: the Hoover Dam. What a feat of literary engineering to construct a story around 6-1/2 million tons of concrete! History is strewn with the remains of novels that have collapsed under less weight; characters and themes buried beneath a rubble of details that hardworking authors couldn't keep standing. Indeed, the dimensions of this challenge make Murkoff's success all the more remarkable.

Like the great dam, the novel begins with a disparate collection of materials that makes it difficult to see how it's developing. But press on. Under Murkoff's sure hand, three unrelated stories gradually lock into place to produce a beautiful, quiet romance and a breathtaking scene of the Depression's most ambitious project.

The emotional center of the story is Filius Poe, a young engineer who's spent "the past year and a half separated from the world around him, wandering without solace on the blurred edges of his quiet life." The accidental death of his son closed down his successful career as a dam builder and extinguished his once blissful marriage. Now, called by an old colleague to the Boulder River project, he hopes that mimicking the actions of real life might gradually reanimate his dead heart.

Meanwhile, a young mother in Oklahoma has just discovered that her Bible-selling husband has been maintaining another family. In that sudden change of the light, everything about Lena's life looks different. She grabs her son and heads out to Nevada to stay with an old girlfriend who's offered her a job.

And finally, there's Lew Beck, a man as small as a child and possibly the meanest character I have ever run across. A conspiracy of anti-Semitism and parental insensitivity has mutated in Lew's mind to produce a savage human being. By 15, Lew developed a policy of ferocious retribution against anyone who mocked him. Soon after, he brutalized his father, trashed their deli, and began working through a series of construction jobs before landing a spot on the Hoover Dam project.

Unfortunately, the scenes of Lew's brutality and sexual violence may limit the book's appeal to readers who would otherwise enjoy its searching portrayal of human nature. It's the same problem, in a sense, that Milton struggled with in "Paradise Lost": How to keep Satan from stealing the show. Ironically, Murkoff holds the dam and all its complicated construction in the background, but Lew's explosive scenes almost blast away the subtle story of Filius Poe.

The contrast between these two men couldn't be more striking. Filius is an emotional monolith. The tensions pulling on him are invisible along the polished skin of his life. But Murkoff catches the deep vibrations of grief running through this quiet man. We sense his pain in the arrested smile he shows to Lena's little boy, and we hear it in the letters he writes to his wife. When Filius looks at himself, he's startled by how young he still is.

Only the earth-altering work of the dam is deep enough to subsume his sorrow. He labors through two shifts most days, hoping to collapse into a dreamless sleep at his unlived-in model home. But very gently, Lena, who's also recovering from the sudden loss of family, begins to melt his affections. Sitting with her and her little boy at the kitchen table one morning, Filius has "the first good memory he's had in a year, and he wants to hold on to it like a prayer he could repeat to himself every day for the rest of his life."

As the project moves forward - two years of building tunnels, cofferdams, and diversion streams - the narrative loops back into the lives of Filius, Lena, and Lew, building the structure of their pasts. When these three apparently haphazard lives finally cross halfway through the novel, it's an electric moment. The wonderful possibility of happiness between Filius and Lena flashes into being just as Lew arrives to snuff it out.

Ultimately, Lew is no Satan no matter how wicked his behavior. Murkoff complicates that easy reduction by showing an instinct of real heroism: When a fellow worker is hurt suspended on a cable, Lew risks his life to help. But somehow the sparks of bravery and affection in his nature never get the oxygen they need to burn away all the anger that consumes him.

Only in the final pages of the novel, after the cofferdams are complete and the Colorado River has been successfully diverted, does the actual dam building begin. By this time, Murkoff has pooled a reservoir of suspense that threatens to burst through the covers of the book, and the finale arrives in a spectacular crescendo. What a dam; what a debut!

Ron Charles if the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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