“The River” by Peter Heller. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019. 253 pages. $25.95
Two young men - Jack and Wynn - take a canoe trip in northern Canada at summer’s end. Their plan is to spend a few weeks paddling through a chain of small lakes to a river that will deliver them, via some white-water moments, to a small Native American village. They are best friends with a rare gift of time. Jack is from Colorado and Wynn lives in Vermont. Both are skilled outdoorsmen who want this time together in the wilderness they relish. They’ll fish, hunt, take their time. They don’t have to rush and, in leaving behind their satellite phone, they free themselves of conscious ties to the world to their south. They have lots of food, fly rods, a rifle, a few books. It’s a survival trek in luxury mode.
Peter Heller’s literary thriller, “The River,” is a tribute to friendship, nature, intelligence and expertise. Jack and Wynn are likeable. The story’s point of view shifts back and forth between the two of them, somehow drawing us tighter into their campfire circle. They paddle, they read, they fish, they wax euphoric amid the utter grandeur of those remote woods.
The first thing that goes wrong is the scent of wood smoke. It doesn’t belong. Jack, the more wary of the two, climbs a tree and sees what’s heading their way - a massive forest fire. They’ve passed their point of no return. The plan is to keep going in hopes of finding a place where the river is wide enough to blunt the impact of the racing conflagration. It is a menace but it’s not yet an emergency. They are gifted with a confidence derived from knowledge and skills.
The next drag on their sense of well being are the two vile drunks they encounter, parked on a small island, guzzling booze midday. The crude men ooze a “Deliverance” vibe Wynn and Jack are happy to leave behind.
A third encounter is also more of a feeling than anything else. The men hear a man and a woman arguing. It’s coming from somewhere on the shoreline but not visible from their canoe. They both realize that the argument is heated and that the woman may be in danger. After a while, they decide to turn back and investigate. They find nothing.
Jack is a born hunter, ever scanning the shoreline, watching for movement, comfortable relying on his gut. His sense of foreboding on this journey kicked in early and he accepts its veracity. He considers it, compartmentalizes it and moves on, hypervigilant. Wynn is a different type - trusting and likely to offer up the benefit of the doubt. These two know and respect each other. They have ways of communicating priorities and ways of handling conflicts. When Pierre shows up in their camp, hysterical, crying that his wife has gone missing, the two young men negotiate their opposite responses and go find the woman - beaten, in shock, in danger of dying.
Pierre, the megafire, the drunks, the whitewater and the woman they must take care of all become threats to their own survival. Heller has plotted a host of perils all headed for the boys as surely as the sunrise. They are methodical, interdependent, skilled and grateful for any luck that might come their way.
Heller’s story is technical, steeped in the language of expert canoeists and seasoned outdoorsmen. Readers infer by context and become as immersed in the luxe remoteness as Jack and Wynn. For the deepest flavor of the story, readers are advised to take in the details as they’re offered rather than race ahead of them. The book is a bona fide page-turner with an energy that hurtles readers through the story like whitewater.
Whitewater and a hellacious fire, along with a woman who is slowly but surely dying. The parts to this story are grueling, offset by the sweet and gentle young men who deliver us a magnificent natural world and a friendship that surpasses transient peril.
Contact Rae Padilla Francoeur at firstname.lastname@example.org.