Imagine for a moment the devastation brought about by a particularly bad hurricane. Imagine if, in the wake of that first hurricane, another one headed in just a few days later. And another. And another. Imagine that this happened for so long, that things got so bad, the government wrote off an entire section of the country. Imagine the kinds of people who would stay behind in a no-man’s land battered routinely by storms of ever-increasing size. This is the world of Rivers, the remarkable debut novel from Michael Farris Smith, out next month from Simon and Schuster.
Early in Rivers, the main character, Cohen, recalls driving around the Mississippi Gulf Coast with his father, a carpenter, who points out all the homes he’s built. That memory is set amid scenes of Cohen in the here-and-now, roaming a destroyed, abandoned Gulf Coast. It’s a place called home by criminals, zealots, and ruthless treasure seekers. And it’s still home to Cohen, a man who lost his family in this chaos, who has stayed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a doomed wish to finish building an addition to his house. That addition was going to allow room for his growing family, now dead. So in that early scene, Cohen moves through the wreckage of a place that he readily identifies as home, and the juxtaposition between a place where his father could build something meaningful and this place where nothing can be built, where everything is in tatters, is as striking as anything I’ve read recently. There are a lot of scenes that staggered me in Rivers, but that scene was the one that really knocked me for a loop. It’s not the most vivid scene in the book, not the most violent or most moving, but it is the one that resonated with me the most readily.
Nearly ten years ago, I drove to Ocean Springs to help my grandparents prepare to move in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I was on break from school because another hurricane, Rita, had hit my part of Louisiana just a month after Katrina made landfall. I grew up visiting the Gulf Coast that Cohen inhabited as a child. My grandfather was raised in Biloxi, and my grandparents spent most of my childhood in Ocean Springs. I have clear memories of my grandfather pointing out landmarks from his own life, places he went as a child, stretches of beach and water where he swam. In the wake of Katrina, I saw the destruction of all those places, and I felt the gnawing guilt of the survivor as I looked at the wreckage of so many lives. During that trip, my grandfather took me out into the backyard and showed me a patch of concrete, set in the ground. It had once been used to anchor one of his meteorological devices, though he’d removed that, leaving only a 3x3x3 patch of solid concrete. As they prepared to sell the house, he asked if I could help him get the concrete out. I spent the better part of the day chipping away at that block of concrete with a sledgehammer, but by the time I finished, I’d only removed a few inches of concrete from one of the edges. I imagine that I felt a little fraction of what Cohen feels when he stares at a pile of soaking wood that he can’t manage to erect into the shape of a room.
At its core, Rivers is a meditation on how we endure in the face of tragedy. The book is many other things, of course. It’s a dystopian novel of the first order, one that – like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – is rooted in enough reality to make it truly frightening. It’s an adventure story. It has the trappings of a Cormac McCarthy-style western. But beyond all of that, it’s a story about how we learn to move on and how we face the encroaching tide.
It’s rare to find a book that manages to present an ambitious premise, a compelling plot, fully-realized characters, and first-order writing, but that’s exactly what Rivers does. Line-by-line, Smith constructs a world that is frightening, beautiful, ugly, brutal, tender. It is a complex world, inhabited by complex characters, and Smith’s writing guides the reader through that world in a way that only the best writers manage. He doesn’t hand-hold or coddle; he grabs you by the shoulders and forces you to stare at the ugliness of the world. But he is also ready to offer a warm embrace after you’ve stared at that ugliness for a while. In Rivers, Smith has something vital to say about humanity. We’d do well to listen.
Pages: 333, FoA Pages: 21, 539 (The total number of pages reported on by Friends of Atticus)