Ambitious First Novel: A Hoover Dam Epic

Waterborne , by Bruce Murkoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pages, $25.

Dam-building is a dramatic business. It demands explosives, ingenuity and legions of men. The Hoover Dam at Boulder was the largest engineering project of its age, built at the very nadir of the Great Depression. From 1931 to 1936, it provided employment for thousands, and, more potently, it fired the imagination of a population in distress: If the human will could alter the course of something so powerful as the Colorado River, then surely there was hope for the future.

Bruce Murkoff has harnessed the project’s energy and mythic potential and made its construction the backdrop to Waterborne , a vivid first novel whose ambition recalls the fiction of E.L. Doctorow. At its heart is a triumvirate of wildly different characters, each going west and bound for a new beginning in Boulder, a town that has leapt up like a mirage in the parched Nevada desert, the place where their paths will converge.

Lena McCardell is in mourning for the husband she thought she knew and loved, having slammed the door on their happy marriage and hit the road with her son and a single suitcase. Filius Poe, an engineer, wears a wedding ring yet travels alone, coasting deserted highways by night to avoid the dreams that sleep might bring. Both are compelling characters, their lives mazes of mystery and memory even to themselves, but Waterborne ‘s dark star is Lew, the first Beckman to be born in America. Traumatized by childhood anti-Semitism and seething with a short man’s fury (he never grows above five feet), Lew kicks and punches his way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, smashing noses, jaws and ribs, breaking his father’s fingers and his mother’s heart, and hurling a hammer through the window of Beckman Kosher Meats. If water courses through the novel’s title, it’s blood that splatters its pages, most of it spilt by Lew.

“You’re a good worker,” one of his employers observes. “But you’re nasty. Plain nasty.” Lew is a good deal more than that, though: His menace verges on Marlovian, and, like the very best baddies, his casual cruelty comes silhouetted by tragedy. With a “child’s heft and a man’s swagger,” this small, psychotic personage casts a long shadow over the gentle love story that Waterborne becomes, providing necessary contrast-and an uncontained threat.

Mr. Murkoff has the confidence to bide his time herding this ill-matched threesome; their 200-page journey is buoyed by sublime, precise prose. (Mr. Murkoff is a poet of the skies: clouds “pleat” the horizon, they hang “bundled together like a bouquet of black roses,” and are as “deeply colored as bruises.”) The landscape through which they pass is strewn with emblems of calamity and exhaustion-the bloated corpse of a cow, caved-in farmhouses and rust-scabbed car skeletons-and in their slipstream they draw a horde of extras, all going west. Lena, Filius, Lew-all have jobs waiting for them, but every inch of these others is washed-out, from their dungarees to their hair. Their pasts seem Kodak-crisp by comparison, and each has a story to tell, summoning up a phantom crowd of lost spouses, lost businesses-even a lost limb. As one listener puts it: “That’s a sad bit of history.”

The images evoked might have been framed by Walker Evans’ lens-sparse wooden interiors, scraped-back hair and hand-stitched frocks, simple as potato sacks-but Mr. Murkoff mostly resists the lure of dust-bowl chic. He’s a shockingly generous writer, and there’s something gutsy in his determination to end his cameos on the up beat: Villains turn out to be heroes, motherless babes exit giggling.

They say it’s not the arriving but the traveling there that counts, and the first half of this chunky novel is endlessly intriguing: A complex, multi-voiced narrative, it meanders from character to character, from story to story, with a pull every bit as tenacious as a river current.

In the desert, the story blooms and the novel becomes simpler: a wonky love triangle whose happy ending is humble rather than triumphant. The action-and there’s plenty, including gunfights, a near drowning and genuinely thrilling descriptions of dam-building-is jolted into the present tense in this second half, as if changing the course of the Colorado frees up lives that were on hold. As Filius realizes, “his memories, exact and wistful as they were, didn’t always suffice, because there was something doubtful and needy in their retelling, like a story known secondhand.”

Bruce Murkoff has written a nuanced, persuasive first novel, memorably articulating the epic via the particular. Hoover Dam remains a monument to progress; Waterborne is as much about the past as it is about moving on-it swirls in the eddies where memory and dream merge.

Hephzibah Anderson is the fiction editor of London’s Daily Mail .