Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).
“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 the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction. In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.
Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel. After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading. The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.
Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however. “To hell with Katrina,” he decided. The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn. “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later? And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf? What would the world look like?” Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.
When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.” Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.” The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated. This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.
With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character. Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”
That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence. The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen. He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality. These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.
Two recollections especially mark Cohen. The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom. Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by 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, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.” As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions. Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading. The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy. One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story. These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.
If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself. With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him. Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story. Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him. But he cannot do it—he cannot leave. Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.
The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.
When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if he will be a man of action or inaction. Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really. Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times. Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us. I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic. He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.
If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice. Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand. Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me. The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.
If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.