New from Heller
I never bypass the chance to read a novel by Peter Heller. I love that I never know what to expect—each book is so different from the one before, but all are gripping; his prose is both spare and lush in its evocations; and on top of that, the guy can tell a story. Once having read both The Painter and The Dog Stars, I would have been hard pressed to choose a favorite between them, and although I liked Celine less, it was, again, such a departure from previous works that both its characters and its mystery intrigued me.
His new book, The River, is similarly powerful. The sense of uneasiness evoked from the very first page builds to a cascade of climactic moments, each overpowering the previous one, until you wash into the ebb tide of the epilogue and realize you’ve been holding your breath for a good part of the book.
Two college friends, Dartmouth classmates Jack and Wynn, are taking a much-dreamed-of trip together, setting aside a few weeks to canoe a series of lakes into a northern-flowing river up into Canada. Jack, who was raised on a ranch in Colorado, is the more experienced of the two at camping and hunting, but Wynn, a gentle giant from rural Vermont, has his share of skills. They plan a leisurely trip of trout fishing, blueberry picking, and a slow trek through a route that alternates between smooth, flat water idyllic for paddling and rapids that must either be run or portaged around.
All of this changes one afternoon halfway through the trip, when the two climb a hill and see the glow of a massive forest fire about 25 miles off but clearly headed directly across their path. The lakes up until now have been completely empty of humans, and the two boys have enjoyed the cry of the loons and the spectacle of moose, bear, and other wildlife, but as they paddle upstream with new urgency, they encounter first a pair of men, drunk on whiskey and lolling in their campsite with no awareness of their peril, and then, as fog drops down and obscures the shore, they hear the voices of a man and woman, arguing passionately, their voices bouncing across the water. They warn the men about the fire, but can’t catch a glimpse of the contentious couple, and paddle on to their next campsite.
The next day, burdened with a sense of guilt for not searching harder, Jack and Wynn agree to turn back and warn the couple, if they can be found. This turns out to be a fateful decision that burdens them for the rest of their trip with unexpected responsibilities, dangers, and crises over and above the dreaded wildfire, which approaches ever closer.
Heller always delivers on atmosphere, and even if you have never camped out, paddled a canoe, or caught a fish, you are right there with his characters on the bank of the lakes and river, looking at the stars, watching the raptors in their nests at the tops of the tallest trees, or reeling in a line with a brown trout on the hook. The reader also gets quickly inside the heads of both protagonists, as well as tapping into the quiet and solid friendship between the two, which nonetheless becomes strained as events ramp up to catastrophe and their differing temperaments emerge.
As with his other books, I read this one in a day and a half, only deterred from one continuous sit-down by a traitorously depleted battery in my Kindle. In an interview for Bookpage, Heller said that he writes…
“…a thousand words a day, every day, and I always stop in the middle of a scene or a compelling train of thought. Most writers I know write through a scene. But if you think about it, that’s stopping at a transition, a double-return, white space. That’s what you face the next morning; it’s almost like starting the book fresh. If you stop in the middle, you can’t wait to continue the next day.”
That same sense of urgency pervades me as I read any of his books.