Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith - More2Read

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith


It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.

Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.

But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.

Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.


“Every once in a while an author comes along who’s in love with art and the written language and image and literary experiment and the complexity of his characters and the great mysteries that lie just on the other side of the physical world, writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. You can add Michael Farris Smith’s name to the list.”
– James Lee Burke, New York Times bestselling author of Creole Belle and The Tin Roof Blowdown

“The lightning whips and the thunder bellows and the rain attacks in the water-stained pages of Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers, a hurricane-force debut novel that will soak you with its beautiful sadness and blow you away with its prescience about the weather-wild world that awaits us.”
– Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, The Wilding, and Refresh, Refresh

“[A] powerfully written apocalyptic tale. . . . While Rivers is already inviting inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Smith’s canvas is broader and the story even more riveting.”
– Booklist

“Smith’s vision of a post-apocalyptic society left behind by civilization is expertly executed. This world is chilling–all the more so for its believability–and it is peopled by compelling, fully realized characters, some of whom only exist in the form of ghosts. In contrast to this bleak world, Smith’s prose is lush, descriptive and even beautiful. A compelling plot, fuelled by a mounting sense of tension and hope in the face of increasing hopelessness, will keep readers engrossed to the very end.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A story so powerful, I thought it was going to ignite every time I picked the damn thing up. Rivers will be compared to some of the greatest stories ever written by writers of generations past and present, but what can’t be compared is the power and skill that lie within its pages. The words will shear your eyes and brand your mind, and you’ll be scarred by what you’ve read for days, weeks, even months after. This is an important book. Pick it up–I bet you won’t be able to put it down.”
– Frank Bill, author of Donnybrook and Crimes in Southern Indiana


One word placed carefully after the other with heartfelt necessity, sentences that keep you reading and fully immerse you into the scene with eery realistic imagery, you feel the desolation, the solitude, the love, and the loss.

This author has a potent and poetic prose, repeating and orchestrating a fine symphony, a cadence of reflections on world gone topsy turvy and the lost, all this has you subdued by the jugular and hypnotically taken into its haunted and unforgettable realm.
A road to somewhere story.

I loved its simplicity, grace, and terrible beauty.

The praise from James Lee Burke, a great writer and novelist, should be enough of a reason to read this, he, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, to name a few, all write great stories with the haunting and the unforgettable, their writings with tragedy intertwined are a cycle of retelling that transcends in many forms from the Greek and Shakespearian tragedy tale till now and continues on into the new writers to come with this author being one of them, with this debut of a grande voice.


“He turned off the light. Blended with the sound of the storm was the sound of the wash against the shore, the tumble of the whitecaps. A cold wind blew in off the water and he pushed the hood from his head and felt the wind and rain on his face and leaned his head back and felt it around his neck and ears and it was in those moments that he could feel her still there. Still there when there was only the dark and the sounds of what she had loved. He closed his eyes and let the rain soak into him and she was there at the edge of the water, the salty foam rushing around her ankles and her hair across her face and her shoulders red from the sun. He let himself fall back and he lay stretched across the horse, his arms flailing to the sides, the barrel of the shotgun pointing down toward the wet sand and the flashlight dangling from his finger-tips. The rhythm of the waves and the crash of the rain and the solitude and the big black world around him and it was in these moments that he felt her there.
“Elisa,” he said.
He sat back up in the saddle and pulled on his hood. He looked out across the dark ocean and listened and he thought that he heard her. Always thought he heard her no matter how hard the wind blew or how hard the rain fell.
He listened, tried to feel her in the push of the waves.”


“The kudzu had begun to creep like some green, smothering carpet, taking over roads and bridges. Finding its way up and around chimneys and covering rail lines. Swallowing barns and houses. Sneaking across parking lots and wrapping itself around the trunks of trees and covering road signs. The constant flooding and drying out and temperature swings had split the asphalt of parking lots and roadways, the separations becoming the refuge of rats and skinny dogs. Chunks of beach had disappeared as if scooped out by a giant spoon, leaving the flat waters of a lagoon where people used to sit with their feet in the sand and drink beer from cold glasses and eat shrimp from a bed of ice served in a silver bowl.
This was Cohen’s world as he navigated the Jeep carefully through the rain and the debris.”


“He reached out his hand.
He was shaking and he took heavy breaths to try and stop it but he could not. She hovered there in front of him as if waiting for something and he closed his eyes and it was then that she became more clear as she was lying there with her head in his lap and his hand on her pregnant stomach. On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by the screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, maybe thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do. Get the hell out of here. Don’t pack anything. Don’t stop. Get your family and get in your car and get the hell out of here and that was what they had done. Like they had all done so many times in the last years but this time there had been no head start. No window. Only get in and get out. And the tornadoes splintered out of the sky and weaved toward them and then exploded through the bodies and the cars and trucks, metal and flesh being lifted and catapulted.”


“And this would be the last memory that he would have as he lay dying. The memory of kneeling there, in this place where he had been a boy with a mother, with the pieces of the holy glass in his hands. Not the realizations of what he had done, the flesh and blood that he had claimed along with Aggie, the women he had corralled and made his own, their bodies and their minds and maybe even their hearts and souls, unlocking the doors when he wanted and feeding them when he wanted and doing what he wanted when he felt the urge. For what other reason was there to keep them? He didn’t think of them or the men he had separated them from. The blood on his hands and the tilth on his fingertips. He
didn’t think of the man that he was and the power he had grasped and he didn’t sing for forgiveness or call out for redemption. In the next hour, as he lay dying, he thought only of that moment of serenity, kneeling next to the church where he had been a boy before he had grown into a man and realized the clarity of strength, his knees damp in the wet ground and in his palm the blue and red and purple glass. As he lay dying, his flesh ripped like fabric, his blood flowing freely like the rain that came so often, he thought only of those beautiful shards of glass and the weight that they carried, and he found it difficult to comprehend that while he held those small holy things, how something so big and so powerful and so violent could have been so silent as it crept up behind him.”


“IN HIS PREDICAMENT, THE ONLY THING AGGIE COULD DO WAS THINK. AND HE did. He thought of the sweaty nights in the sweaty room with the sweaty snakes slithering through his arms and around his neck and waist as the organ played and the people sang and shouted. Thought of how it moved them and how the men wanted to shake his hand and the women wanted to be led by him and how he did lead them all the way and how good it felt when they were only nodding, no matter what he asked them to do. He thought of fists against his face in barrooms and the thrill ride of whiskey and the summer dark and he thought of nights in jail staring out of a square window at a black dotted sky when he felt like he was at the bottom of a well. He thought of the anarchy of the evacuations and how it filled him to be alive in the midst of the panic and he thought of once when he was a boy and a man who was living with him and his mother had slammed her against the wall and he thought of the knife he had stuck in the back of the man’s leg later as he slept on their couch and the sound the man had made as the blade sank in. He thought of the work he had done to gather a community and he thought of the crying of the newborn child and he thought of the purity of the rising sun across the horizon in the morning after a storm. He sat there, tied to the trailer, the rain on him as if he were nothing more than stump, and he imagined that the thunder was calling him, a voice from somewhere out there speaking to him in a language that only he could understand. He soaked in the rain and listened to the thunder and his arms ached from being stretched and tied. What more can you give to them? What more can they want: It has always been like this, they did the same thing to Him. He gave them all they could want and all they could need. He showed them the path to glory and they tortured Him, spit on him, watched Him bleed and bleed and bleed. And now here I am and all i did was protect them, shelter them, feed them. All I did was lead them through the storms, a watchful shepherd and his Mock, and now I can scream out in the night and they will hear me and no one will come. Not a one. It has always been like this. And it always will be.
He thought of how this was going to end, realizing the things he had gained and the things be had lost, and it almost seemed to him like these thoughts were the thoughts of another man’s life.”


“Then she had found herself alone and she had discovered that there were plenty of things in this work that were unimaginable. She had never been able to understand this place with these men and their roped-down trailers. Never been able to conjure anything more horrific than this as she lay down at night. Instead of creating new worlds, her dreams were filled with fascinations of escape. Filled with fascinations of revenge. Filled with the faces of those she had loved and now missed. And in the waking hours, she could only wonder where they were. Wonder if someone was looking for her. Wonder if anyone was still alive who cared. She was certain she had family. Somewhere. But this new world was so vast and shifting and unanswerable that she hadn’t been able to create anything but an unhappy ending for herself and the others. The little girl whose mind once was a carnival of ghost tales and spirit worlds and the romance of hurricanes was now a young woman whose insatiable imagination had been replaced with the sharp edges of the real thing.”


“As they sat there in the dark, the weight of it all began to collapse around them in the confined space. The storm muted all and left them suspended in the absence of sound. A steady, heavy drone. Mariposa slumped in her chair and Brisco lay across her lap. Nadine held the baby, her head bowed and resting on top of the tiny bundled body. Kris stretched out her legs and rested her bands across her stomach. Evan stared at Brisco. Cohen stared at his hands. Quiet, fatigued silhouettes.

They were small things against this big thing. Against this enormous thing. Against this relentless thing. Small, exhausted things whose lives had become something so strange and extraordinary that it didn’t seem possible that they could be anywhere but sitting in this abandoned building in this abandoned land in this storm-tilled night in this storm-tilled world. They sat still and exuded exhaustion. Maybe even hopelessness. Maybe even helplessness. The day had begun with the idea of a finish line, but that idea was being washed away in this torrent of despair.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 25 August 2013