Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers: A Novel BY Michael Farris Smith. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 352 pages. $25.
The cover of Rivers: A Novel

I live in farm country in the Midwest. Last summer, the prairie was dry and haunted. Scorched cornfields stretched as far as the eye could see, the stalks standing tall and brown, bearing no fruit. On the local news every night, reporters talked about the blessing of crop insurance, and reported how nearly 90 percent of the state was suffering from the drought. Conditions were similar across the plains. This year was different: We were inundated by rainfall. Hundreds of acres flooded into small lakes big enough to have currents. “We’re the Seattle of the prairie,” was the joke, only there hasn’t been much laughter, because it is clear that something is not right.

Fiction writers often tangle with how to write about the issues shaping the world we live in—war, poverty, oppression—while still preserving the creative energy that should propel a good story forward. How do we manage to write the world we live in while writing the worlds of our imaginations? In his debut novel, Rivers, Michael Farris Smith answers that question with confidence, writing about the effects of global warming while also offering a story that is unmistakably his own.

Rivers is set in the post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast after a climate shift has made much of the gulf uninhabitable. The federal government has given up. Rebuilding is simply too much work because the storms are relentless and growing worse. A line has been drawn, both literally and figuratively, and if you live below “the Line”—meaning, in this case, “a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama”—you are forsaken.

Cohen, the novel’s protagonist, is grieving. He has lost his beloved wife, Elisa, and their unborn child. Cohen lives alone, below the Line, in the rain-sodden and moldy home he and his wife once shared, surrounded by the artifacts of their love. At times, it’s not clear if Cohen is preserving memories of the life he had or punishing himself for staying below the Line too long while Elisa was still alive.

There are few people in Cohen’s world. He keeps to himself; his only human connection is Charlie, a scavenger who makes his money by bringing much-needed supplies below the Line. Cohen has a horse, Habana, and a dog that has taken up with him. Mostly, he has his grief, and that grief overwhelms this novel. Cohen is a man who lives to mourn.

When he is robbed by two young drifters, Cohen is left for dead. He vows to avenge himself. When he encounters the assailants again, he stumbles upon a commune of women and two boys being held against their will by Aggie, a self-declared prophet hell-bent on building an army of followers by any means. Cohen is warily welcomed into the desperate community, but the situation is precarious. The storms are coming more fiercely, threatening everyone’s lives; and then there is Aggie, who is just as deadly and who wants to lure Cohen into his machinations, one way or another.

Before long, Cohen must decide if he will die with his ghosts below the Line or venture north to see what remains of the world he once knew. Cohen quickly realizes that no matter what he chooses, he won’t be alone as he finds himself increasingly connected to the fates of Mariposa and Evan, the two who robbed Cohen under Aggie’s orders; Evan’s younger brother, Brisco; and the women Aggie has held captive, all of whom need Cohen to rise above his grief and offer them some kind of salvation.

Rivers is a captivating novel, and its ravaged landscape is particularly believable. Farris Smith is meticulous in detailing the reshaped Gulf Coast region, the abandoned husks of buildings, and what happens to both man and nature when a world becomes untamed. “Left to itself, the region below the Line had become like some untamed natural world of an undiscovered land. The animals roamed without fear.… The constant flooding and drying out and temperature swings had split the asphalt of parking lots and roadways, the separations becoming the refuge of rats and skinny dogs.” Cohen is a compelling figure amid all this devastation; whatever calamities he encounters, this grief-stricken man remains a relatively calm eye in the storm.

Rivers walks a fine line between a meditative literary novel and dystopic thriller. Though the first half of the book takes its time, fully immersing the reader in Cohen’s mind, the second half is explosive and gripping. Many dystopic novels work too hard to depict the way things have gone wrong—belaboring the point with excessive, overly descriptive reminders of the differences between the disastrous fictional world and the actual world that readers live in. Rivers avoids this hyperbole by carefully detailing the back story of how the Line came to be, doling out the history so that questions are answered when and how they need to be answered, no more and no less.

There is a problem, though, and one that is difficult to overlook. Cohen’s stubborn refusal to reach for a better life is clear, but we have no real sense of why he loved his wife so deeply that he’s willing to endure constant, harrowing deprivation. The entire novel is predicated on the profundity of Cohen’s grief, but we have no real sense of who Cohen is grieving or what she has done to inspire that grief. Elisa is so narrowly and briefly portrayed that even when we reach the end of the novel, we know little more about her than we did at the beginning. We are unable to mourn with Cohen. We are unable to appreciate his mourning. These absences compromise the emotional tenor of the novel.

Nonetheless, Rivers is richly written and engaging. It is a timely novel that remembers to remain a novel. There is no moral caution about how we must proceed if we want to avoid the Gulf Coast’s fate in Rivers. There is, simply, an ending that becomes something of a new beginning. Right now the corn stalks are at their highest. This year, they are lush and green, even if many of them are standing in shallow pools of water.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest. Her novel, An Untamed State, and essay collection, Bad Feminist, are forthcoming in 2014.