What's both good and problematic about "Eye Lake" by Tristan Hughes (Coach House Books, 205 pages, $17.95) is its narrator, Eli, whom the story's few nasty characters call "retard." He's a bit slow, as he explains, because he came out with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, choking the oxygen to his brain. His mother didn't survive long after that. His father, at some point, shot himself. And his grandfather, disappointed in love in a remarkably picturesque way, also went off and disappeared.
So Eli has earned more than his share of sympathy, and rarely has there been a more endearing storyteller. Living up by Eye Lake in a somewhat wild part of Canada, he is part of a story that began with his grandfather, Clarence, who, anticipating the railroad, founded the town of Crooked River with a hotel. Clarence's counterpart in entrepreneurship is Buddy, who started the iron ore mine that entailed a rerouting of the river and the building of a dam that created one lake and drained another.
As the hotel decays and the mine is exhausted, Clarence's and Buddy's progeny (Eli and the nasty Billy) act out a sort of vestigial drama about missed chances and lost children. A story that has haunted Eli, the disappearance of his childhood friend George, is reprised in the disappearance of Billy's little boy, for whom Eli has developed a protective feeling.
And as Eli tells the story, he also tells the story of his grandfather, and of George, much of it related as it's told by his uncle Virgil. That's the trouble, although it's nitpicking to say so: A narrator who's presented as slow, and whose English runs to, "It wasn't much good at catching nothing," could hardly be expected to repeat verbatim a tale told to his uncle, then retold to him, which is what the author has Eli doing.
And yet, as I say, it's nitpicking, because Eli's rough speech also allows for such inspired moments as, "that bright golden-green that was the colour of fevers," or "the thrumming of the crickets, sounding like steel cables pulled too tight," or a description of the winter pines and spruces as "a sorrowful black-and-whiteness like the X-ray of a sick person."
That is, we might not thoroughly believe Eli, but we trust him, and his story of a small town growing and declining on the whims of a few outsize personalities also is the story of families, boom to bust. "Most water," Eli says, more than once, "is like a good dog; give it time and it'll find its way home." Like the water, every element in this story comes around. "Everything," as Eli says, "comes back in the end."
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.