Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book review: Down in the River

Ryan Blacketter, author of Down in the River, used to teach a class at PCC, entitled "High-Risk Fiction." I had the good fortune to experience the class back in 2011, in which Blacketter led us in examinations of great works of fiction (mostly short stories), examining them line by line and explaining how everything in these works --every change of perspective, every phrase, every sentence, every long vowel --is significant. 

After reading Down in the River, Blacketter's first novel, it's apparent that he puts his conviction into practice.

Down in the River is the story of Lyle Rettew, a troubled youth struggling to find his place in the world after the suicide death of his twin sister. Lyle, his unstable mother and authoritarian older brother (the family patriarch) find themselves in the alien world of Eugene, Oregon. His sister's death, caused the family to be uprooted from their Idaho home, ostracized by their religious community. Lyle has a history of psychological instability made all the more pronounced by his peculiar family life and his adolescent struggle to find acceptance among peers from his new school. In his attempt to find acceptance and to come to terms with his sister's death (a subject which is strictly avoided among his family) Lyle chooses a dark and perplexing course of action.

As I stated, in class, Blacketter emphasized how in great works of fiction, nothing is insignificant. Down in the River is a clear demonstration of that precept.

First of all, there are the characters. Besides Lyle, there is Rosa, Lyle's girlfriend, and her sister, Shanta, who come from a troubled hispanic (and very Catholic) family. And there is the bitter albino, Martin, who is the first among the Eugene social set to befriend Lyle (albeit for morbid and vengeful reasons). These characters are significant, of course.  But beyond them, even the minor characters --the cardigan-wearing Catholic priest, the mannish Sergeant Krune who heads-up the juvenile detention facility --project special significance on the canvass of the larger story.

The novel is composed of a series of events that also hint at something larger that is occurring beneath the surface. A pipe bomb blows the lock to a mausoleum. A distressed wild goose crash lands on a bridge that spans a river. A pair of delinquent youths are mistaken for respectable Canadian tourists.

There is a lot to think about in this novel. However, I have to admit that, overall, I found the book to be obscure. I recognized that the aforementioned events and characters were significant, but I wasn't always able to make the connection. Also, I generally found the dialog to be colorless.

Which is not to say that Blacketter lacks eloquence. Scattered throughout the work are lines that stand out, McCarthy-like, approaching poetry:
"Martin slipped his BB pistol into the back of his pants and opened the front door, gesturing grandly for Lyle to go first, as though introducing him to the night."
"The land gathered into desert promontories above the Columbia. When the dusty hills swung away, a valley fell before them. The road was a thin line that would take them into its distance."
One last nit-picky observation: I'm not sure I'd call Down in the River a novel. It is perhaps too long to qualify as a short story, but on the other hand, there is only the single plot line and the single main character. I'd argue, rather, that this book is a novella. (But, then again, I might be a little too persnickety.)

All in all, Down in the River is a success. Blacketter succeeds in winning sympathy for his characters. And if, in the end, readers are unsettled by the novel's conclusions, isn't that one of art's primary functions?

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

The book sounds like intellectual didactic, mumeric, self-fellatio. I gave up on English Literature as a subject when I realized I could write such sentences as the previous, and be uselessly correct. How did it make you feel? Did you feel anything? Did it make you love something? Did it make you remember the silly smile on his face when he knew he was being cooperatively mischievous?