This is not a book-review blog, as a rule, but when the folks at Simon & Schuster asked if I’d like to take a peek at Michael Farris Smith’s novel of meteorological calamity, “Rivers,” I couldn’t resist. I’m sure they didn’t ask me because of my brilliant literary insights. I’d guess it’s because I’m a storm chaser and weather geek. But before I talk about the weather, I have to address the story — especially because the storms are really secondary to the characters.
“Rivers” follows in the steps of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” if incrementally less grim and less spare. In a near future when the United States government has written off the Gulf Coast as a hurricane-blasted wasteland, Cohen is a builder who’s decided to stay behind among the survivalists, the desperate, and the treasure hunters digging for troves of cash they think were buried by the fleeing casinos. We soon find out why: He’s still dealing with a storm-precipitated personal tragedy, and his home is the last vestige of his happy life.
Cohen lives an isolated existence made less lonely by a stray dog and horse and punctuated only by supply runs. But what’s left below The Line is certainly no Walden Pond, no place for quiet contemplation as nature reclaims the land. It’s more like the zombie apocalypse without the zombies. It’s a place of redneck primitivism, woman-enslaving cults and mercenaries who shoot first and ask questions later as one devastating storm after another rakes the tattered lowlands. When a generous impulse jeopardizes Cohen’s bulwarks against the chaos, he’s forced to confront the worst elements of this world and his own demons, choose alliances and try to find his way out.
Smith’s sentences stretch out like Cohen’s dreary days, in a loping, run-on, hypnotic rhythm. The author shifts point of view between characters with a sometimes irritating fluidity. His flashbacks feel more conventional, with more orderly paragraphs that reflect Cohen’s then-contented days at home and on an enchanting vacation in Venice with his wife among the “rivers” there.
Smith writes of one of Cohen’s moments of despair:
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. Somewhere unknown to man and unsafe for man and forgotten by the one who had created it. He was going to die in this place and it wrecked his spirit at first but then this became an apathetic notion. He didn’t know what there was to live for. And he didn’t know what there was to die for. Only that he would die in this forgotten place and be a part of its unaccounted history.
The water ran down his head and face and arms and legs. Under his skin. In his bones.
The “rivers” on the Gulf Coast seem ever-expanding in this apparent global-warming-caused disaster, though climate change is merely implied by the fact of the storms. The storms themselves seem to be, technically speaking, hurricanes that come every few days, though their behavior is at times unusual for tropical systems (pardon me while the weather geek has her say). Warm-core tropical systems rarely leave people cold or bombard them with massive hailstones. But maybe this crazy weather is beyond our ken as we try to foresee a future that eludes even the climate scientists.
What’s more important in the confines of the novel is that the untamed and relentless storms are reflected in the ragtag, ruthless humans living in their domain, and it will take an extraordinary person to rise above the madness. The plot is almost as unruly as the weather, but in the last fifty pages it presses the accelerator and drives hard to the end.
Will you like “Rivers”? “Like” isn’t really the term one applies to apocalyptic novels, but readers drawn to desperate, poignant survival literature may admire it. If you’re looking for a story about meteorological carnage, “Rivers” is a lot more, and a lot less in the weather department, as the storms only set the stage for the human drama. This isn’t storm porn. And on a personal note, I never like seeing animals in peril, even in a “literary” novel.
That said, I found the novel interesting and ultimately compelling, particularly in its forceful climax. I appreciated that, like the weather, it kept me guessing. Like a brutal storm, “Rivers” will test you — and it might make you think twice about buying waterfront property.