Riding up on the heels of his blockbuster, "The Horse Whisperer," it is clear Nicholas Evans has big boots to fill in his first novel for Little, Brown. His own.
Tommy is an English boy growing up in the late 1950s, obsessed with the American Old West, cowboys and Indians. The little boy's life takes a turn for the worse when his elderly parents enroll him at Ashlawn Preparatory School for Boys, where the motto is Semper Fortis, "Bravery always." Poor little Tommy will need a lot of bravery, since only beatings and derision await the lifelong bed-wetter. This period tends to be a tough slog for the young boy -- and for the readers.
Mercifully, Tommy's older sister, Diane, a rising star in the English theater, lands a Hollywood contract and insists on moving the tortured boy with her to California. She's even lassoed Ray Montane, the hero of Tommy's favorite western TV show, "Sliprock," who serves as a surrogate father for the star-struck kid.
In Southern California of the early '60s, Tommy is treated to a long, sunny taste of the American dream: convertible rides, splashing in pools and a gardener tending palatial grounds. Unsurprisingly, things are not as they seem: After Diane and Ray are married, a new twist on tragedy takes hold of Tommy.
It is difficult to discuss "The Brave" without offering spoilers, and oddly enough, the same can be said for reading the novel itself. As the complicated story of Tommy's life unfolds in scenes that vacillate between the past and present, the author often drops bombshells that readers will wincingly realize they didn't want to know just yet. These prematurely revealed plot points give the impression Evans isn't confident enough in the forward propulsion of his own narrative to allow readers to learn these critical secrets in a more organic way, over time.
Interspersed with the chapters on Tommy's childhood, Evans flips into the present, where the adult Tom, a documentary filmmaker in Montana obsessed with the plight of American Indians, is coming to grips with the loss of his marriage and his subsequent failure as a father to young Danny. In the present day, however, Dan is a U.S. Marine in Iraq, up for a court-martial for gross misconduct in the field of battle. In a time-traveling round robin of chapters, Tom struggles to help his son as readers learn of the protagonist's own tragic childhood in the shadow of the Hollywood sign.
Speaking of the H-word, Evans' first novel, "The Horse Whisperer" was produced for film by none other than Robert Redford; for better or worse, it's clear Evans envisions a similar celluloid vita eterna for "The Brave."
Even if Evans' latest isn't a great book, it certainly qualifies as a good book, despite being good in ways that real life isn't. Real life is unpredictable. The same cannot be said for "The Brave."
Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan., whose reviews and reporting also appear in Publishers Weekly and Film Comment.