After last summer in the Roaring Fork Valley, the last way one would want a story to begin is, “They had been smelling smoke for two days.” However, it is still a powerful opening, makes for a fantastic, slow-burn of an adventure story and immediately sets the ominous mood in Peter Heller’s latest novel, “The River.”
“The River” is set in the deep north woods of Canada on the fictional river running into the Hudson Bay.
Two friends, Jack and Wynn, are on a paddling expedition and escaping their collegiate rigors at Dartmouth by getting out to the wilderness — one of their shared loves that solidified their friendship. The two feel like they came out of a western novel: Jack, the tough-spirited ranch kid from Colorado who runs on intuition and instinct, is almost a perfect opposite of Wynn, the taller gentler one with “all freckles and unruly curls and earnestness … (and) looked like a kid who had never had a mean thought in his life.”
They also feel like a portrayal of a younger Heller. The boys are drawn together by a mutual respect — “guys who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods” — and a literary way of looking at the world. During their first meeting, they talk books and share an affinity for Louis L’Amour, Henry David Thoreau, poetry and the classics. You can imagine the author connecting with people through those two litmus tests: Wilderness and literature.
You can also sense Heller’s personal love of wild places; he writes about them in perfect lyrical descriptions of nature: “The cold, clean scent” of moving water and “earth smells of falling leaves slick with rain.” Paddling a river, “They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds – the gulp of the dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.”
Despite this tranquil setting, the novel builds an uneasy atmosphere early on, not only with the sighting of a large wildfire someplace far in the distance, but also a run-in with some seemingly unsavory characters, Jack’s recalling of a tale by Edgar Allen Poe and his general sense that something doesn’t feel right. The two also have a rifle with them, which is normal for a canoe trip in northern Canada, though its appearance makes you think of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s advice to writers: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
Early on, the boys come across a couple arguing at a fog-shrouded campsite on the river bank, and through Wynn’s moral judgement, return to try to warn them about the fire, but they have disappeared.
When they later come across the man paddling alone down river, the suspense is fully set, and the pace of the story builds momentum, as though the tumultuous river were pulling you without a choice. Through the boys’ viewpoint, the reader is left wondering whose perception to trust, as the fire roars beyond the horizon with “low hisses, a ticking and chirping, a simmering crackle like a million crickets, hellfire crickets, singing of apocalypse and char.”
Peter Heller sums it up perfectly in his thoughts of writing: “Narrative can be like a river. You follow it around a corner, and you never know what’s going to be there. Before you know it, the story comes into something I’d been really concerned about for a long time.”