Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -
Rivers by Michael F. Smith
Simon & Schuster - forthcoming September 2013
|In Michael F. Smith's debut novel, Rivers, climate change has made the American South a wasteland. A series of hurricanes has waged war on the coast, forcing people from their homes to destinations north of "the Line"—a government-chosen boundary that denotes where civilization ends and where all becomes lost. So to speak, if you live south of the Line, you are on your own.|
Cohen has lost everything, with his wife and unborn daughter killed during a mandatory evacuation of his seaside town, and he has been living in their home with a dog, a horse, and little else. When Cohen is attacked for his supplies and left for dead by two teenage hitchhikers—a Creole girl and a boy—his already-damaged world is turned upside-down. He sets off for justice, but will he find it? And is it even worth seeking?
Smith's short story, "Anywhere," was first published by The Summerset Review in the Summer 2004 issue, and the magazine was honored to have him read the piece in 2005 at The New York Public Library in the inaugural event of the series Periodically Speaking which continues to this day. The story was expanded into his debut novella, The Hands of Strangers, reviewed in our Spring 2011 issue.
Rivers continues this theme. With immaculate description and deep empathy, the reader truly feels Cohen's internal struggles. Cohen is a man broken, and yet his journey to save his memories from the hands of two thieves asks a greater question of the human spirit: when we are in despair, what does it take to push further? When all is lost, how do you gain it all back? Smith pushes Cohen head-on into this journey, for better or for worse, and it is an astonishingly good ride. Smith's passion for the South is palpable, and the native Mississippian writes as if in a part homage, part plea to save the splendor of his home state. With stunning prose and nearly perfect pacing, Rivers is an uncommonly good debut, forcing the reader to consider not only the consequences of climate change but also ponder the limits of the human spirit.