There’s a convention for writers when it comes to reviewing literature: Give an overall sense of the book’s premise and thrust. Then, and only then, give your overall evaluation. Here, though, I’m going to break from that and declare my enthusiasm for Mark Barr’s debut novel “Watershed.” It’s a sturdy novel, wonderfully written and now among my favorite pieces of fiction in recent years.
The book opens with Claire, a married mother of two, running to the outhouse. “When she hitched up her nightgown and let go, the burning left her breathless.” Her no-good husband, Travis, has given her a sexually transmitted infection. Her ire is so great she takes the kids to her mother’s. We’re then introduced to Nathan, an engineer, who arrives in western Tennessee to work on a dam being built there. It’s 1937, electricity will soon be introduced to rural Tennessee, and Nathan, who claims to be from Illinois, seems to be carrying an unseen burden and is possibly on the run from disaster.
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Claire moves into a rooming house where Nathan and many of the men working on the hydroelectric project live. She befriends Hull, who hires her to help him canvass the countryside and convince residents to sign up for the electricity. Travis is still lurking around but continues to visit the same prostitute that upended his family. Meanwhile, Fitzsimmons, one of Nathan’s superiors, swears that Nathan looks familiar, although he can’t quite place him. We learn that there was a fire at Nathan’s former job, and that people died. Nathan is intent on trying to leave the past behind — to cast it as an event with a definitive beginning and end — but, of course, that never works. He carries a newspaper clipping as a reminder of the fire. There’s clearly collateral damage beyond the eight lost lives, but Nathan is steadfastly bound to his work, which keeps him busy after office hours, calculating and drawing by dim lamplight.
One of Barr’s most endearing characters has the smallest role. A small red-headed boy that pops up throughout the book in the briefest of chapters. The novel exists in the world of adults; even Claire’s children are relegated to the background, but the red-headed boy’s presence anchors the story to the innocence and wonder of shared human experience, as well as providing specific context for the arrival of electricity.
Claire excels at her job and her relationship with Hull turns carnal, which is to say it’s not a romance but strictly sexual. “The dress came off, the two of them struggling against each other, against the clothes, until the car rocked with their efforts.” Claire relishes this newfound freedom, both personally and professionally.
Nathan calls to mind John Singer from Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Like Singer, Nathan is a close observer of others, and is a neutral conduit between the other characters; when Claire asks Nathan to deliver a note to Travis, he bears the grief and worry of the exchange, far beyond the bounds required of him as a messenger. Also, like Singer, Nathan carries a pervasive sadness with him, though Barr takes great care in not allowing that sorrow to be self-pitying or melodramatic. While Singer bore the secrets of others, though, Nathan eventually unburdens himself by disclosing his secret to Claire. It’s a genuine moment of human vulnerability and need. Nathan seems to understand the necessity of catharsis.
Nathan takes to spending time with Freitag — a colorful character, to put it mildly, who scavenges and fights dogs. Nathan is so worried that his employer will discover his secret that he and Freitag drive to Memphis to try and get ahead of an inquiry and the last hundred pages of the novel races through a series of satisfying revelations and conclusions.
Barr’s novel is excellently constructed, and the plotting and structure are pristine. A small detail about Hull’s obsession with newspapers being sent from Chicago later serves as a completely natural turning point in the story. The characters are well-realized and alive. This isn’t to say it’s flawless. Occasionally the prose is overwritten with unnecessary exposition, and every so often there’s an unnecessary one-word line of dialogue. These are the most minor of quibbles. Barr has written an outstanding novel about characters he deeply cares about. That devotion, in turn, has allowed him to craft a delightful story about this country’s very first experience with transformative technology, and about the lives of people who made up the first cross-over generation — those before and after the introduction of electricity.