Wednesday, April 3, 2019

THE RIVER :: Peter Heller

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

Peter Heller's experience as an outdoorsman and adventure journalist is on stunning display in The River, a sure-handed combination of brutal wilderness writing and the masterful character insight he demonstrated in 2017's Celine. Jack and Wynn are like brothers, bonded over their love of mountains and books. On break from Dartmouth, they decide to paddle and portage a string of lakes in Manitoba, Canada. The serenity of canoeing, fishing and paperbacks over a campfire transforms into urgency when they spot a raging wildfire headed their way.

Safety is an increased-paddling-pace away--until a man they'd previously heard arguing with a woman shows up at their camp. Bloodied, rattled and armed, he claims his wife is missing. Jack and Wynn make a time-eating trip upstream to look for her and end up doubting the man's story and fearing further for their well-being. On the run from a killer fire, inclement weather, waning provisions and a man whose motives they mistrust, Jack and Wynn will need every iota of their wilderness savvy to survive.

Heller's writing is as appealing as ever. His knowledge of nature and the elements takes a leading role that is technical but not overwhelming. Despite the stirring turn from sheer joy to menace, particularly through the looming fire's impact on flora and fauna, the prose is never rushed or frantic. Character is still the heart of The River, as core differences in the men's responses to the dangers and ideas about how to proceed amplify the tension and tragedy.

STREET SENSE: Peter Heller's work is ever-changing, yet character is always at the heart of it. The River should have high appeal to the outdoor crowd with the details on paddling and the like, but it remains an adventure story, a mystery and a piece on how characters respond to the pressures of the elements, both natural and created by man. If you're a fan, you'll be a fan. If you've not read Peter's work before, this is a great place to start if you have a leaning towards outdoor adventure.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Fire is a large part of this story and Heller's writing about the wildfire is haunting. He's superb at dropping in descriptions that are apt and beautiful but not momentum-breakers. There are parts of this passage that I don't want to disclose, so it's going to be a partial, but I loved this description of a fire that is so much more than a fire: "On this side were only low hisses, a ticking and chirping, a simmering crackle like a million crickets, hellfire crickets, singing of apocalypse and char."

COVER NERD SAYS:  It's sometimes hard to judge a cover when you know the book exists, but I believe I can somewhat objectively say I really dig this one with or without the name Peter Heller on the front. I was drawn in by the canoe, paddles and color palette, but the kickers are the turmoil previewed by the water motion and oar placement. Until just now I didn't even really think about the fact that the water is red, but wowza. Great work. 

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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