THE SMOKE JUMPER. By Nicholas Evans. Delacorte Press. 432 pages. $26.95.
There are images of brave men who jump out of helicopters to fight forest fires, and an idealistic woman torn by her love for them.
Pain, passion, loyalty, honor, and a quest for redemption. Lush pictoral scenes that take readers from the rugged, tranquil beauty of the Montana wilderness to bloody civil war conflicts in Africa.
Nicholas Evans' third novel, The Smoke Jumper, has many of the elements necessary for good fiction - an imaginative plot, fast pace, vivid descriptions, and a supporting cast that helps lead his main characters down the path of self-discovery.
Unfortunately, what it lacks - strong dialogue and a consistent point of view - does more to expose the author's weaknesses than advance him in the ranks of stardom.
The disappointment isn't so much in the overall product: Despite its flaws, The Smoke Jumper is a good read. It's in the realization that Evans, best known for his first book, The Horse Whisperer, wasn't able to find the tools necessary to take this kind of writing to a higher level.
Connor Ford and Ed Tully are best friends and firefighters, both likeable in their own way. Ford is fearless to the point of having his bravery sometimes described as a death wish. Tully is a classical musician who is an easy target for jokes from his macho peers.
The love triangle that develops between them and the woman who eventually becomes Tully's wife, Julia Bishop, is compelling. Defined by the horror of a Montana forest fire, the three-way relationship smolders even after Connor embarks for Africa and spends years documenting human suffering there in his new career as a photojournalist.
The plot is not as predictable as it may first seem. And, to his credit, Evans doesn't browbeat the reader with his obvious Angel of Mercy metaphors.
The problem is more basic: The dialogue, especially at some of the most crucial moments, is so stilted and speech-like that the story ends up being told with an air of melodrama that could have been avoided. There also are distracting and awkward point-of-view shifts: The book opens through the eyes of a troubled teenager named Skye, who invariably becomes a lot more important than a prop, but figures into the big picture only in terms of the effect she has on Julia.
In addition to The Horse Whisperer, Evans is author of The Loop. Both were New York Times bestsellers. Whisperer was translated into 36 languages and made into a motion picture by Robert Redford.