Few people have the luck to die “in the prime of life,” Peter Heller writes early on in his poetic and unnerving wilderness thriller “The River,” out today (Knopf, 253 pp., ★★★ out of four),
It’s an unusual observation in a book filled with them, but it could also be a thesis statement for a novel ultimately about surviving the worst the world of man and nature has to offer. If you’re coming face to face with the dead end of things, it’s likely better to be young and filled with optimism instead of old and sick; at least then it’s a fair fight. But who wants to die young if you lose?
For Jack and Wynn – college best friends paddling from Hudson Bay in late fall, the Canadian winter about to drop on them – a trip through the wilderness is their chance to get away from the real-life rigors of Dartmouth. But these aren’t your average college juniors. Both are avid outdoorsmen already haunted by the realities of life: Jack, small but noble and tough, is preoccupied by the death of his mother in a tragic accident and is convinced now that tragedy looms.
Wynn, meanwhile, is shaped like a linebacker but opposed to emotional conflict. He feels more at home under the stars than in the classroom or in the arms of a lover, his own nobility and optimism clear enough by the joy he finds ferrying his disabled sister up a mountain or quoting poetry.
These are the kind of soft-spoken young men of another era, the kind who will "sir" and "ma’am" you to death but who can also handle themselves in a bar fight.
While they both may teeter toward the archetypical, Heller uses them in surprising, often unreliable ways, each man’s character stretched to the limit. Because when the chief antagonist is nature, there’s no way to reason with the problem.
In this case, “problem” means fire. A vast conflagration bears down on the river, at first maybe 30 miles away, but each moment it comes closer, the boys sense the fire more than see it: An orange glow in the distance. Herds of fleeing animals. And then, at once, it’s the air itself, and Jack explains that being on the water is no better than standing still on the shore. “It’ll jump the river like a semi running over a chipmunk. ... The air gets superheated. That’s what creates a firestorm. The rolling smoke is actually gas, and if the wind is right and it ignites, it’ll flash-bake you a quarter mile away.”
Clearly, the men need to get out. And fast. Which, of course, isn’t going to happen.
They stumble upon an attempted murder – a young woman beaten almost to death by her jealous husband – which forces them to save the woman and hunt for the husband, all while fleeing the very real chance they’ll be cooked alive. If this sounds, well, half-baked, it isn’t.
Heller imbues this story with a kind of mythological reverence for the land and for the old ways of men, for the “essential decency” of humans in general. Which is to say that when faced with toxic masculinity, Jack and Wynn do the right thing. Or try.
"The River” is a slim book – just over 250 pages – but it is full of rushing life and profound consequences. Every move Jack and Wynn make along the river has the chance to kill them or those they’re trying to save, and the result is a novel that sweeps you away, each page filled with wonder and awe for a natural world we can quantify with science but can rarely predict with emotion. And if Heller’s characters sometimes lack subtlety, they make up for it in their ability to convey tenderness, a fundamental lack in far too many of us.