Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2013)-Roads are washed out, along with buildings, bridges, food and just about every other necessity needed to survive. Mississippi, along with the rest of the Gulf Coast, is a waterlogged mess and it’s been raining for so long that it’s hard for Cohen to remember life before the rain, but he does remember some things, like the beauty of his dead wife and how much he wanted the child that was growing inside her before they were killed during an evacuation. Cohen still makes what passes for a life inside the house they shared, along with a horse and dog, and his regular trips to see his friend Charlie (who has a knack for procurement) for supplies punctuates the lonely days and nights.
On his way home, after one such trip to see Charlie, he encounters a teenage girl and boy by the side of the road who flag him down for a ride. Against his better judgment, he stops to pick them up. Their fumbling attempt to kill him is unsuccessful, but they do manage to steal his Jeep and many of his supplies. He finally makes it home to find it has been relieved of supplies as well, no doubt by the teenagers or others involved with them. He especially feels violated after he discovers that the room that was to be the baby’s has been invaded as well, and makes it his goal to track down the teens and retrieve what belongs to him.
Cohen sets about finding the teens with a single mindedness that is both terrifying and exhilarating, and it almost kills him. Eventually he finds the camp where Mariposa and Evan are, for lack of a better description, being kept, along with Evan’s younger brother, along with quite a few women, some pregnant, by a man, Aggie, who has designated himself their lord and master. If you’re getting a creepy feeling, it’s certainly warranted, because Aggie is one of the creepiest bad guys that I’ve read in a long time, and it’s a wormy, insidious kind of creepy. Aggie sooths his “people” with words of comfort and promises of shelter and food, but once he’s got ‘em, they become mere property. The locks are on the outside of the doors and Evan and little Briscoe are the only males. I’m sure you can get the gist of Aggie’s goals. Once Cohen gets into the mix, though, all bets are off, and Aggie may have met his match. And there’s a storm coming…
I’m willing to bet that once you crack open Rivers, you’ll want to finish it off in one sitting, if only to follow your dread all the way to the end without pause. You will root for Cohen, Mariposa, and Evan, and during their sometimes nightmarish trip through a south saturated in rain, filth, and despair, you can almost feel their constant discomfort and marvel at their strength in the face of such horrendous odds. Michael Farris Smith’s world is a post-apocalyptic landscape of a different kind where there are no supernatural monsters, but instead, plenty of monsters of the human kind. There is also still goodness and decency left, which, in spite of his very rough exterior, Cohen has in spades. His longing for his deceased wife is both beautiful and heartrending and in fact, the narrative is interspersed with vignettes about his time with Elisa, making his grief all the more poignant. Smith’s prose is fluid, much like the landscape, lyrical in its sparseness, and serves to lend a very effective air of impending dread that is unshakeable and palpable. Rivers is one of the best books I’ve read this year. On the surface it is a very effective, and sometimes terrifying, survival story, but for me, it’s a love story that inspired hope, even as it broke my heart. I can’t wait to see what Michael Farris Smith has in store for us next.