Minneapolis writer Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon’s first novel, “Nothing,” features family secrets, idle drug use, toxic relationships and a few scenes of startling violence. It’s the presence of something else that lends an apocalyptic cast to the proceedings, raising the scale on which the plot plays out. That would be wildfires, increasing in strength and slowly converging on the Missoula Valley, where this novel is set.
“Nothing” is a pared-down story: Outside of its three main characters, two of whom serve as narrators, few of the characters who appear on the page are crucial to the story. In this novel, it’s the past that reaches out; the long-departed hold secrets aplenty, the withholding of which can have lethal consequences.
“Nothing” begins with Ruth and Bridget, two young women losing themselves in parties and intoxication. Their friendship is taut, co-dependent with a constant undercurrent of violence and resentment. Ruth is one of the novel’s two narrators, and her fixation on Bridget is clear from the way her perspective is arranged. Soon enough, the novel’s second narrator emerges: a man whose name, we eventually learn, is James. And while James’ tone is often cold and rational, his actions, including riding the rails and camping in the middle of nowhere while carrying large amounts of cash, suggest that he may not be all that stable. Soon enough, his path will converge with that of Bridget and Ruth, volatility meeting volatility.
James has come to Missoula seeking facts about his biological father, long dead, and only recently a presence in his life. James learned that his impending birth had fractured his parents’ relationship: “On account of me, not even born yet, that he’d been blind drunk for days and started the fire that killed him.” And so there’s a history of fire and death from the outset; “Nothing” is the sort of novel where you don’t hold out hope for a happy ending quite as much as hope that what’s coming isn’t the worst possible fate for all involved.
There’s plenty of grit in Cauchon’s book; it’s also a deeply tactile work, as each of the characters seems acutely aware of their bodies, even as they seek a fitting place in the larger world. While this novel ably focuses on the minute and fraught interactions of its three central characters, the churning of the landscape around is never out of view.
For all that James’ self-imposed mission moves with the queasiness of fate, so do the relentless wildfires that loom throughout. There are natural disasters, Cauchon implies, and there are disasters born of human flaws. “Nothing” demonstrates what happens when they converge.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.