The Teacher of the Human Spirit
A Review of
The River: A Novel
Hardback: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
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Reviewed by Al Brooke
The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.
– W. S. Merwin, “Dusk in Winter”
Peter Heller’s fourth novel starts with smoke.
From the first pages we are introduced to each of the elements which will dog the two friends — Wynn and Jack — as they canoe in the Canadian wilderness: a forest fire, two drunks on land, and a pair of arguing voices in the fog. The river itself seems no problem to them, as they feel prepared for that.
Heller previously wrote a creative post-apocalyptic novel (The Dog Stars, 2012); a thriller about an artist with anger issues (The Painter 2014); a mystery story about a quirky, female investigator (Celine, 2017); and now a morality tale about wilderness canoeing. The common denominator is fly-fishing.
“Write what you know” is the advice young writers receive, and each of these novels is set in a frame of Heller’s experience. The River, at first blush, has the simplest plot. Two friends from Dartmouth are on a month-long wilderness canoeing trip, first lake-hopping, then running the fictional Maskwa River (patterned on the Winisk?) towards Hudson Bay. The path north on the river pushes the story forward, as the friends juggle the elemental risks — fire, earth, air, water— in the midst of their more human dangers.
This apparently simple river story is structurally complicated by Heller’s use of internal dialogue for both Wynn and Jack, and frequent flashbacks which illuminate their characters and skills. Jack is the leader, the captain, the hunter, brimming with suspicion, trying to elude his grief. Wynn is big, sometimes goofy, a heavy sleeper, an artist, ready to believe in the goodness of others. They are bound together by their appreciation of each other and their willing acceptance of the joyful hardships of the outdoors.
The young men share a “literary way of looking at the world,” which colors and guides their self-reflection. Jack recalls:
They had met even before the first day at school, on a freshman orientation trip, a four-day backpacking romp through the White Mountains. He and Wynn had rambled way out ahead of the group and talked nonstop, about canoes and rivers and climbing, but also about how Thoreau did his laundry across the pond at Emerson’s house and how Faulkner was such a terrible drunk and womanizer and whether “Spring and All” was as good and important as “The Waste Land.” Jack was startled. He’d never had conversations like this with another kid, and he’d never imagined anyone else his age would love to read as much as he did — especially a guy who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods. They were best friends from that first day, and whatever else they were doing, they never went very long without trading books (46).
Like Wynn and Jack, Heller doesn’t go very long without mentioning books and writers — from Goodnight Moon to Edger Alan Poe.
For Heller’s protagonists, Nature is the raw material, the cauldron, and the teacher of the human spirit. After one disaster, Jack is
truly awed and relieved. The implacability and violence of nature always awed him. That it could be entirely heedless and yet so beautiful. That awed him. But also its intricate intelligence. Its balancings. Its quiet compensations. It was like some unnamed justice permeated everything. He would not go further than that. Still, the workings of nature made the voracious, self-satiating intelligence of humans seem of the lowest order, not the highest (197-98).
The technical descriptions of river running seem spot on:
The stern just cleared it. The current accelerated at the left edge of the hydraulic and Wynn ruddered hard off the right side to straighten the boat and swing the stern away and around and even in the dark he looked down into a deep gnashing trough. They were in what they knew to be a ramping rock garden whelmed with whitewater, and the rush was so loud it went silent and they braced to hit a sleeper, the thud of a boulder barely underwater, and the sudden sideways upending, the flip and maybe the awful crunch of Kevlar as the boat wrapped and buckled around the rock.
. . .
And then they were by. The fast current and chop funneled down the middle of the river and the gradient seemed to level and they knew without looking that they were in a wave train, a rolling succession of breaking haystacks, and they did look and they could see the pale froth at the tops of the standing crests like whitecaps, and the crashing of water diminished to the discreet song of each single wave, and then the waves were smooth rollers, and then they were released: into the calm flat water of the pool, the metallic sheen of river stretching ahead again, almost placid, an uncertain respite (176-77).
Wynn and Jack face moral dilemmas and know that they are facing them. They struggle with decisions — “should we go back?” “should we press on?” They see the risks, sense the dangers, and make choices. They are forced to be “agile in spirit” and to “adapt quickly.” Heller does not pretend that courage comes without a price, and we quickly come to care for his characters.
Al Brooke is a criminal defense attorney cross-trained in theology, literature and physics. He thinks graphically, reads voraciously and writes occasional book reviews for The Champion and for The Englewood Review of Books. His personal online presence is at commonplaces (www.albrooke.com).
 More broadly the common denominator is the outdoors, and Heller’s nonfiction writings (in Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, and Bloomberg Business Week) reveal his broad personal knowledge of expeditionary canoeing, fishing, surfing and environmental concerns. His book-length nonfiction is similar.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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