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A robust tale of personal losses and second chances

Waterborne, By Bruce Murkoff, Knopf, 397 pp., $25

It was the most spectacular public works project of its time. Built during the Great Depression, Hoover Dam in Nevada quickly became an all-purpose symbol of mastery over nature, the promise of the West, technological know-how, and hope for the future. Engineers and desperate job seekers flocked to Boulder City, seeking to make the territory bloom and to rebuild their lives.

The town serves as a fitting setting for Bruce Murkoff's debut novel, "Waterborne," a robust tale of loss and second chances. The novel tells the intersecting stories of three unlikely migrants to the dam site in 1932. Filius Poe, an engineer; Lena McCardell, a young wife and mother; and Lew Beck, a drifter, have little in common, except that their lives at home have become unbearable, driving them to find work and solace in a frontier town amid strangers.

"Waterborne" is more a tale of anecdotes and reminiscences than of subtle psychological probing. The motivations of the main characters are plain enough; each is painfully alone. The numb, withdrawn Filius grew up with love and encouragement, discovered his passion for making things work during boyhood, and was devoted to his wife and son. The idyll comes to an end when he loses his family in a boating accident. Lena comes of age in small-town Oklahoma with modest aspirations. Despite her father's urgings to pursue learning and adventure, she is content to marry a local Bible salesman and to live quietly, keeping house. Everything falls apart when she learns that her happy-go-lucky husband is a bigamist. Lew, the son of Jewish shopkeepers, is stigmatized by being abnormally short. He has endured years of taunts and rejection, simmers with rage, and finds release in beating up anyone who crosses him.

The novel's drama lies in the characters' efforts to find stability and a sense of belonging in unsettled new surroundings. The vignettes work to good effect in conveying the characters' preoccupations with the past and the quick connections that arise when people are cut off from the routine and familiar. As Filius, Lena, and Lew embark on their travels, they do not eagerly anticipate what lies ahead, but instead find comfort in looking back; the past provides both refuge and identity. All think longingly of times when they felt, in retrospect at least, that they had everything they wanted: Murkoff offers evocative sketches of Filius's childhood home and the excitement he felt starting out in his career and married life; Lena's recollections of dances, picnics, and sweet times lying in her husband's arms; and even the unfortunate Lew's few fond memories of feeling close to his family.

The characters' attempts to create community with their fellow migrants, whether on the road, in the local cafe, or on the dam work site, are portrayed in a matter-of-fact manner, avoiding sentimentality. The various characters simply share their stories and try to develop rapport. Describing the relationship that builds between Filius and Lena, Murkoff avoids an obvious, full-blown romance; instead, in short, touching scenes we see Filius gradually coming back to life through his friendship with Lena's son. Both Filius and Lena struggle to open themselves up to new relationships without relinquishing what they cherish from the past. Not all the novel's episodes are as absorbing; some meander or get bogged down in detail.

If the novel has a major weakness, it is the character of Lew. The accounts of his brawling are startling at first, then predictable, then tedious. Though Murkoff humanizes Lew, portraying his hurt and his desire for love and recognition from his parents, by the book's rather overwrought climax he seems reduced to little more than a stock villain.

"Waterborne" can be enjoyed as an old-fashioned historical novel, a story of turbulent times, and lives in flux, all played out against a majestic backdrop. What sets it apart is that the characters are not bold, glamorous seekers of independence and fortune.

Their dreams are ordinary ones. It is through their attempts to overcome their isolation, to find the safe place they once had or should have had, that they inspire our interest and sympathy.

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