Michael Farris Smith’s ‘Rivers’
by Michael Farris Smith
Simon & Schuster, $25.00 hardback, 352 pp.
When reading Michael Farris Smith’s debut novel, Rivers, it’s natural to see the influence that his literary predecessors, masters of prose and tone, have had on Smith’s work. No influence is more apparent than that of Cormac McCarthy. In Smith’s chilling novel, released in September 2013 from Simon & Schuster, the author is sparse with language, poignant with details and the narrative teeters between physical and abstract worlds.
The opening pages of the novel cast the reader into the haunting near-future, when a shift in climate has caused a barrage of storms, each equal to or greater in magnitude than Hurricane Katrina, to pound the Gulf Coast. The government has instituted a boundary known as The Line, below which residents can expect no aid. Homes and stores have been looted and flooded. There are rumors of a fortune buried by local casinos in the weeks after the first storms struck, which draw small armies of gun-toting treasure-seekers. The only traces of commerce and community are posses of roving mercenaries and snake-handling preachers, few of whom are trustworthy and most of whom prey upon weak survivors for any number of satisfactions. The reader meets the protagonist, Cohen, several years after The Line has been implemented. Paralyzed by the loss of his wife and unborn child, Cohen weathers the ongoing disaster in solitude until he is one day robbed, left for dead and forced to reconcile his deep grief with the need to persevere. As Smith puts it, “He felt as if he were sitting at the end of the world, in a place that the light had long ago abandoned and undiscovered creatures moved about in the black using their instincts to feed off one another.”
Rivers tells of Cohen’s journey, and Smith’s great gift in the telling lies in his emphasis of each footstep along the way. The novel is sprung with considerable momentum, but its real beauty lies in the crackling prose that Smith uses to zoom in on rust, splintered wood, flannel shirts and blood-soaked cloth. The frantic events in Rivers do not wash away in flooding torrents, but rather unfold at a walker’s pace, letting the reader absorb each detail of Cohen’s exhausting existence in a world that he doesn’t seem ready to admit has changed so drastically. Indeed, much of the novel’s texture comes from the writer’s use of banal or enduring comforts that have come to mean so much more in a dystopian future. “After he ate, he changed into the dry clothes he had left behind and then he fell into an exhausted sleep...He dreamed of a backyard with thick green grass and pinks and whites in the flower boxes and a clothesline. A wooden picnic table in the middle of the yard, surrounded by people he had known.” The changes in landscape and municipality are horrid and sensational, making the lasting gleams of human compassion, intimacy, morality and grace all the more powerful.
Cohen is neither shrewd nor foolish. His battle is no greater or lesser than the other survivors he comes across along his journey. He’s better with a rifle than most and has had the foresight and connections to at least hallucinate a permanent life below The Line. But what makes Cohen such a compelling character and apt hero for Rivers is his unremitting steadiness and moral force. Cohen is as constant as the rainfall. In the face of the mutely mocking universe and dehumanizing conditions, he remains composed and somehow retains his dignity. In fact, much of the story’s inertia is powered by Cohen’s persistence in pushing forward, caked in mud, accumulating sores, losing and regaining hope, from one derelict shelter to the next. Most impressively, Cohen’s toughness is never so absolute or venerable that it diminishes the heavy ache at the story’s core. When taking shelter in a church early in the novel, Cohen takes a moment to momentarily stop thinking about survival and consider what he’s lost by continuing to survive and keep the memory of his family alive. “He looked for the pew where they had sat. Listened for his mother telling him to sit still. Wondered what she would say if she knew what he had become part of. He stood in the doorway and smoked. Thought of what he’d say in his own defense.”
Smith is interested in grief, loss, new beginnings, survival and redemption. The play of light and shadows reveals a mystical quality in Smith’s world and the ways that the force of the human spirit in the struggle against debasement. Smith may be following the road set by McCarthy, but Rivers differentiates itself by offering a hopeful and nostalgic tenderness in a story of endurance that is startlingly relevant to our time.