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Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “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 michael farris smithhe 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.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, dystopian literature, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

We Are All Drifting Houses

Drifting House by Krys Lee (Viking Adult; 224 pages; $25.95.)

             I typically do not read short story collections.  Novels are my book of choice for a variety of reasons.  I enjoy rich, memorable characters, ones who stay with me long after I finish a book.  I love a great setting, one in which I am transported to a different time and place so unlike my own and one in which I can lose myself.  Plot is also important to me, but it has to be plausible and interesting.  I detest badly written novels; thus, a book must have good prose to capture and sustain my attention.

Most short stories tend to lack that certain something I’m seeking in a book.  Short story collections should have the above elements I have previously described, but many simply do not.  In the hands of a mediocre writer, character development, plot, and setting can suffer due to the length of a short story.  Since most are about the length of a chapter, it can be difficult to produce a great short story, especially when page numbers are an issue.

It takes a skilled writer to come up with a great short story.  I am happy to say I found a short story collection that is nothing short of magical.  I found Krys Lee’s Drifting House.

The release of Drifting House is timely considering the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  Lee’s stories matter and she cares deeply about her subjects. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee was raised in California and Washington.  She was awarded special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2012, was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006, and has published in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, California Quarterly, and Asia Weekly.

Lee’s Drifting House is a powerful, intimate, and affecting debut collection.  She writes with elegance and grace as she takes us from Korea to the United States.  What struck me most in the stories were the Korean immigrants struggling to assimilate into American culture.  At times, Drifting House is difficult to read, not because the book is poorly written but because she brings the reader into the action and into the struggles of the characters.  The reader becomes a participant in the story and has an intense reaction to what goes on.  Never have I experienced such torment and such anguish as a reader.  This is deliberate.  Lee wants us to feel this way as she takes on themes such as family, love, abandonment, and loss.

In a story entitled “A Temporary Marriage,” a mother leaves Korea after being abandoned by her husband.  Not only did he leave her but he also kidnapped their daughter.  The mother immigrates to the United States and marries a man only so she can be close to her child.  The marriage is a sham but it serves her purpose.  My favorite story is the title story, “Drifting House,” in which a young boy must make a life or death decision as he leads his siblings to freedom.  The choice he makes haunts him and made me cry.

I had the opportunity to interview Lee and am very happy with the results.  I think you will be, too.  Lee and Drifting House deserve your attention.

Interview with Krys Lee,

Author of Drifting House


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House! Drifting House is a short story collection.  What made you want to write short stories?

Krys Lee: I started writing poetry long ago but found that the stories that were beginning to well up in me and wanted to be told no longer fit in a poem. That’s when I began considering another form. Stories appealed to me at the time because the shapes of what I was trying to write seemed appropriate for the length of a story.

JB: Did you always want to be an author?

KL: Yes. I’ve had my nose buried in a book since I can remember. All my books were smudged with toothpaste and stained with beef jerky because I read in nearly every waking moment. Books were an escape and respite from a fairly grim reality, and, like many who love to read, this desire traveled to writing itself. But I wrote primarily poetry until I began this collection.

JB: My favorite stories in your collection are the title story, “Drifting House,” and “The Goose Father.”  Do you have a favorite?

KL: My favorite story is probably “A Temporary Marriage.”  I felt so much sadness for Mrs. Shin and Mr. Rhee while writing it, and the story’s evolution surprised and shocked me. It was one of those moments when you realize how powerful the subconscious can be.

JB: What gave you the ideas for your stories?

KL: Each story was inspired by something personal, though they’re generally not autobiographical. I love South Korea, and I’m personally invested in its problems, which is evident in stories such as “The Salaryman” that arose after seeing a man I dated devoured by the Hyundai conglomerate. The story “Drifting House” also arose from my friendships with the activist and North Korean defector community in Seoul; the more you know, the more outraged you become at the tyranny of North Korea.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Drifting House?  And what would you say was the most rewarding?

KL: The most difficult part was facing my own lack of faith, but still returning to the writing. I told myself constantly that I wouldn’t be able to sell Drifting House but quitting was like carrying a baby in the womb but not undergoing labor. It was my baby, and I was going to give birth to it. The most rewarding and difficult aspect of writing is seeing more of yourself in the work than you’d ever wished to expose—all my obsessions, fears, and wounds arose in the stories, though I’d persisted in avoiding directly autobiographical stories. But to create from the personal something larger than the self was a process I value, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JB: When did you begin working on Drifting House?

KL: My first story began over five years before Drifting House was bought at auction, but that doesn’t mean I was writing for those entire five years. I took several months off at the time from the book, both for personal reasons as well as out of a fear of commitment. I was afraid of failure, a fear that many writers experience when starting out.

JB: What is your favorite book?  Which authors do you consider your favorites?

KL: The list is exhaustive, but a few constants are The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Beloved by Toni Morrison; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, W.S.Merwin, and John Ashberry; The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov; the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh, and Martin Crimp, and the short stories of Charles D’Ambrosio and Lorrie Moore.

JB: Please tell me a little about your writing style.  Do you write in long-hand first or do you simply go to your computer or laptop and begin writing?  Do you go somewhere in particular to write?  Do you listen to music or do you prefer silence?

KL: I write anywhere it happens for me, from a campground, a subway, to a library. I’m a restless person, so as long as I’m writing most days of the week, I accept my irregular patterns rather than fight them. Depending on the scene I’m working on, music or silence will accompany my writing.

JB: If you were not writing, what would you most likely be doing?

KL: I’d be a human rights activist or a park ranger. Activists inspire me for acting on what they believe is right, and for their courage and sacrifice. A park ranger is attractive to me because I like the unpretentious nature and daily beauty and drudgery of their lives. There’s a restlessness for meaning that keeps my mind moving, and both professions, in different ways, is a search for meaning.

JB: Time plays a significant role throughout your stories.  Can you tell us about that?

KL: I’m obsessed with time. My parents died young, so time has haunted me since I was in my early twenties. I questioned what it meant to live on this earth, and what actually mattered to me in my finite amount of time here. Historical time and geographical time also interest me tremendously, as I’m but a moment on this planet.

JB: Things that really stood out for me while reading your stories were identity, home, and the immigrant experience.  What do you want readers to take with them after reading Drifting House?

KL: My characters happen to be of Korean ethnicity because I understand that culture best, but their stories are universal. I think of all of us as a kind of drifting house, especially readers and writers. The force of society and our personal circumstances acts on all of us in different ways, and people are never quite at ease with their surroundings as they seem. Like my characters in “The Goose Father” or “A Small Sorrow”, in the end, we all seek a place of belonging.

JB: One thing that captured my attention in your stories was the acts of violence in almost every one. What made you use this in your storytelling?

KL: Violence shaped the person I am, and it has clearly affected my sensibility. I thought this was in my past, but the past becomes a part of you and I carried that violence into my fiction, to my surprise. But as Harriett Gilbert from BBC’s The Strand noted, my aesthetic is informed by humor, fantasy, and violence. Darkness is balanced by light, just as in life.

JB: When will your book be released?  Will there be a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

KL: Drifting House will be released on Feb 2, 2012. The book tour will take me to New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and literary festivals in Tempe, Arizona, and Dallas. There will also be an additional event in Honolulu, which will be fun.

JB: What was it like when you saw the cover of your book for the first time?

KL: I realized how lucky I was to have a publishing team that worked so hard on my behalf. My experience with Viking/Penguin has been collaborative, from the editing to the selection of the front cover, thanks to a group of editors, publicists, and designers who love reading as much as I do. The excitement and the faith of this enormous publishing house for a story collection—reportedly an uncommon phenomenon these days—culminated in the moment I received a finished copy of Drifting House.

JB: What’s next for Krys Lee?  Is there a novel in your future?

KL: I actually finished a novel draft last year and am in the middle of revisions. The novel as a form gives you a lot of room to explore, which I’ve enjoyed. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing it soon!

JB: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House, and I know readers will be, too.

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