The horrible cost of flying from revenge

A young horse trainer tangles with a cruel man's pride

"The Work of Wolves" sometimes reads like the work of golden retrievers. It's a little too big, a little too beautiful, and it jumps all over the place, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Kent Meyers's new novel is the kind of book that demands and rewards fierce loyalty.

Meyers lives in South Dakota, which serves as the setting and thematic reservoir for this philosophical western that manages to corral native American spirituality, Nazi Germany, Old Testament myths, and unbridled capitalism.

If Paula Cole is still wondering where all the cowboys have gone, she should meet Carson Fielding, the sensitive, steady-eyed hero of "The Work of Wolves."

The story opens with an epilogue when Carson is 14. It's a kind of early Gospel scene that lets us see the horse whisperer in the making. With natural wisdom that's entirely guileless, he confounds the crafty and comforts the innocent. His father feels as if this young rancher isn't even his own son, and his mother stands in worried awe of the boy's calm determination.

Of course, skittish cynics will bolt at the earnest quality of Meyers's story, but I instantly fell under its spell and have been eager to find other people who will love it ever since.

We meet Carson again when he's a respected horse trainer, a cool young man with infinite confidence in his methods and no interest in anything besides his work. Only the horses matter; they set the pace.

"I don't break horses," he tells a client. "I train horses. Long as I'm workin with 'em, these horses are mine. I ain't a hired hand, an I don't follow orders. I do things my own way, an at my own speed. You don't like what I do, it ain't like we compromise. You either like it or you pay me what we agreed on to quit."

It's a stance bound to offend the county's richest man, Magnus Yarborough, a businessman used to getting his way through a combination of money and intimidation. But his new young wife has convinced him to give her riding lessons, and Carson is the best teacher around.

You know where this is going. But not really. As he teaches Rebecca to ride and trains her three horses, Carson gradually falls in love with her. Who wouldn't? She's gorgeous with "her hair aslant in the wind." What man can resist aslant hair?

But if Meyers gets a little carried away, his characters don't. Rebecca is afraid of her brutal husband, and Carson respects the boundaries of marriage, even if this particular marriage deserves no respect.

It's just one of Meyers's many surprising moves that he's written such a passionate love story with no love scenes. (Put your yellow highlighter away.) The only time that Rebecca and Carson find the opportunity and determination to consummate their affection, they're interrupted in one of the novel's most haunting scenes.

The facts of their relationship, though, don't matter when Magnus gets infected by suspicion. "In the face of the false story that had been built," Carson realizes, "the truth itself could never be conveyed. The god of jealousy imposed a tongue not spoken by other men."

Determined to believe what he suspects, Magnus devises a bizarre plan to exact his revenge, a scheme perfectly designed to punish Carson and leave him no way to fight back.

At this point, though, two unlikely players join the horse trainer in his hidden battle against Magnus. The first is Earl Walks Alone, a native American teenager who's trying to avoid the cliché models of failure and despair that people his reservation. But that effort already failed his father, a teetotaler who was nonetheless killed by a drunk driver. Earl spends his days wrapped in his mother's stultifying warnings, silently narrating a documentary of his dull life with mock solemnity: "The Careful Indian stops at all stop signs before proceeding cautiously onto the highway."

The second young man drawn into Carson's battle is Willi, a German exchange student who comes to South Dakota to fulfill a lifelong dream of living among the Lakota Indians. (Who knew there was a native American movement in Germany?) Willi knows more about tribal customs and myths than any of the Lakota teens he hangs out with, but he also knows much more about his family's shameful history than he can deal with.

It's another daring move on Meyers's part to try to weave these disparate characters together. And it's remarkable that he does it so beautifully. Each of these young men must reach into his past for the courage and knowledge necessary to resist Magnus. To perform the kind of magic that will baffle their enemy, Earl must embrace the native spirituality that he wanted to leave behind on the reservation. Willi must confront the ghastly origins of his family to realize that evil left alone will only grow. And Carson must learn to preserve what most matters to him by destroying it with honor.

"The Work of Wolves" would rather reach for profundity than play safely on the ground with irony. A few times its youthful idealism sputters with pretension, but more often than not it manages to convey some stirring insight about the nature of families, the essence of duty, and the sacred quality of land. Carson's effort to understand and articulate a sense of value that lies beyond Magnus's money is particularly provocative.

It's also a really cool story. I feel certain that somewhere in Hollywood, there's a young Clint Eastwood waiting on tables who could be propelled into stardom by "The Work of Wolves." The movie rights haven't been sold yet, and the finer points of the novel probably wouldn't survive that translation anyway, but even a typically glossy Hollywood version could bring this powerful book the attention it deserves. That might be one more risk Meyers should take.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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