Michael Farris Smith couldn’t have known that his first novel, “Rivers,” would come out shortly after Cleveland headlines told of young women held captive by a creepy guy who thought he was doing those girls a big favor. But another other element of this fine near-future story relies on headlines we read as each hurricane season begins: Ocean Levels Continue to Rise; Louisiana Shrinking as Climate Change Softens the Gulf Coast; This Can Only Get Worse.
In “Rivers,” the government stops trying to save inundated coasts and draws a line in the sand — “a geographical boundary that said, We give up. The storms can have it. No more rebuilding and no more reconstruction.” Residents get fair warning. “The Line was coming and a mandatory evacuation order had been decreed and help was offered” to those who decide to move inland.
Stay where you are, however, and you do so at your own risk. There will be no police or fire protection, no services of any kind in a Mad Max dystopia where only those “mobile enough to scavenge and brutal enough to pillage” are likely to survive for long.
That sounds fine to Aggie, the snake-handling messianic antagonist of “Rivers.” He likes the idea of no taxes, no laws and no interference with his plans to found a biblical community that takes its inspiration from the story of Noah.
If you’ve heard about Ariel Castro’s enslavement of those young women in Cleveland, you’ll find Smith’s portrayal of Aggie instructive. In less talented hands, Aggie would have been a soulless villain, inevitably vanquished by the Decent Man, Cohen, who stumbles onto a village of women locked in old FEMA trailers, rescues them from Aggie’s clutches and leads them like Moses to the promised land above The Line.
That’s probably how the screenplay will be written — and this is a wonderfully cinematic story — but there are no Hollywood cliches in Smith’s prose or plot. He portrays each character as a human being with a back story and personality: They may make choices that appall or frustrate us, but the characters are rounded and real — they make sense to themselves and act accordingly.
The hustler Charlie, for example, has always believed that society would disintegrate. “[H]e had found satisfaction in a return to the natural world, where there was no credit. There was no payment plan. There was what do I have that somebody wants and how much are they willing to pay for it. It was a system that he thrived in. A system that gave him a purpose.” Survivalist mentality, in a nutshell: a yearning for simpler times where what you didn’t understand doesn’t matter because it’s all disappeared.
As Cohen struggles to save a small band of women from Aggie and the punishing weather, Smith resorts to no formula, and his ability to keep you guessing about what will happen next adds tension to long stretches of honed prose. He also manages to make 300 pages of relentless rain so real that you’re surprised your fingers aren’t pruney when you look up from this engrossing story.
All this makes the last three pages a surprising disappointment. We’ve struggled, lived and died with the characters in this dangerous place; then suddenly, three survivors are in a shelter above The Line. How did they find their way to safety? We’re whipped from the most hopeless moment of the story to a happy ending.
Perhaps, having cut his literary teeth on short stories, Smith got spooked by how long a novel is and felt compelled to wrap it up quickly. But novelists are allowed — required, even — to write 60 more pages if that’s what it takes to complete the arc of the story.
Even so, “Rivers” is a really good read. I sincerely hope Smith will give himself permission to imagine his next novel fully — all the way to the very end.
By Michael Farris Smith
Simon & Schuster. 333 pp. $25