THE RIVER by PETER HELLER: WALKING AN ADVENTURE TRAIL CUT BY THE MASTERS

Adventure novels, at least the memorable ones like Peter Heller's THE RIVER, Take up a permanent home in our imagination. 

They rise up from a literary jungle of suspense, following a path cut by the best adventure books of all time.

Some of my earliest childhood friends helped to beat down this well-trodden path: Twain’s Huck Finn, Keene’s Nancy Drew, Crusoe’s Jim Hawkins, Kipling’s Mowgli, Uncas, the last son of the Mohicans, Gibson’s Old Yeller.

These heroes didn’t have to be my age or gender, or even human. I was as eager to sail across the ocean after a whale with Ishmael, as I was to traipse across London’s harsh and bitter Yukon with Buck, the regal sled dog.

The imaginary worlds I inhabited with these characters left me breathless. I slipped into their uncharted landscapes as easily as I slipped under my bed covers, book in hand, each evening.

The writing always spoke of darkness, and water, and of the relentless grip of the unknown, like this passage from Huck Finn:

“The boys huddled themselves together and sought the friendly companionship of the fire... They sat still, intent and waiting. The solemn hush continued. Beyond the light of the fire everything was swallowed up in the blackness of darkness.”

Or this passage from A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky. Young Boone, to save his life, had struck his drunken Pap with a stick from the woodpile and was launched from his family like a wild arrow:

“It was like people and things were all banded against him, the trail losing itself in the dark and the trees hunched close around him and night dripping wet and maybe unfriendly eyes watching from it, laughing when he stumbled. It was enough to put a onesome fright in the heart and a lump in the throat.”

Walking a lonesome trail cut by Athabascan elders were Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women, abandoned by their tribe, surviving the winter of hunger through wit and courage and companionship:

“The moonlight shone silently upon the frozen earth as life whispered throughout the land, broken now and then by a lone wolf’s melancholy howl. The women’s eyes twitched in tired, troubled dreams, and soft helpless moans escaped from their lips. Then a cry rang out somewhere in the night as the moon dipped low.”

Norwegian author Per Petterson led us into this same literary jungle with his novel Out Stealing Horses. An older narrator remembering his haunting younger days with his best friend along the river—the perfect read.

“Between the spruce stumps the grass was growing green and lush and thick, and behind some bushes further on we saw the horses, only their rumps visible, tails swishing horse flies. We smelled horse droppings and the wet boggy moss and the sweet, sharp, all-pervading odour of something greater than ourselves and beyond our comprehension; of the forest, which just went on and on to the north and into Sweden and over Finland and further on the whole way to Siberia, and you could lost in this forest without a chance of anyone finding you…”

Author Peter Heller
Imagine getting lost in a literary jungle inhabited by such authors. Imagine them reaching out to greet authors like Peter Heller and Rick Bass, Leif Unger and David Guterson. Imagine them exclaiming, machetes in one hand, pens in the other, “Come this way! We’ve cut the trail for you!”

I could sense these eternal characters looking over my shoulder as I read Peter Heller's new novel, The River. I could sense them cheering on Jack and Wynn, the brave and tragic young men who live between its pages.

Peter Heller explored this literary jungle with his first novel, the apocalyptic and riveting Dog Stars. But long before he began writing novels, he was a contributor to Outdoor Magazine. In 2002, he joined and chronicled an elite kayaking team's heroic conquest of the world's last great river in Tibet. Read more about Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River on Heller's website

It isn't surprising that Heller's newest novel, THE RIVER, (a gripping tale of a friendship tested by fire, white water, and violence), captures the same thrilling sense of adventure and suspense. What might be surprising is that any single author could navigate the waters between what's real and what's imaginary so expertly. Heller knows how to read the current. He takes the reader to the edge, time and time again. Sometimes we come back from it. Sometimes we don't.

When you travel the sleek and brilliantly faceted pages of THE RIVER (Knopf, available March 5, 2019 or pre-order now) you will make friends with its characters Jack and Wynn. You will slip into Jack's more suspicious view of the world as readily as into Wynn's all-too trusting outlook. 

You will like spending time with these two young men. You will be glad to live in a world where young men like this exist - adept in the wilderness, thoughtful, loyal, cut from a moral cloth with a strongly hued pattern.

Often, the narrative voice is synchronized, as smooth as two paddlers in perfect rhythm: 

"It occurred to them, though neither of them spoke it, that with the fire coming the safest thing would be to catch a flight out of Blueberries Lake... They had paddled many rivers together in the two years they'd known each other, and climbed a lot of peaks. Sometimes one had more appetite for danger, sometimes the other. There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it's what made them such good partners..."  

Lost in the beauty of Heller's prose, you might forget that the mammoth forest fire bearing down on them is only one of the dangers they face.  

"On the right bank the burn ended. Or paused. It was like the border of another country. There was black wasteland and then there was green--willows, alders, the boisterous fireweed flushing pink. And woods--the green-black of the spruce and fir, the rusty tamarack and yellowing birch. It was a miracle..."

Like Dickens, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. They had every thing before them. They had nothing before them. The balance was delicate. The tables could turn as unpredictably as the wind . . . .


NOTE:  Peter Heller will be at the Denver Tattered Cover Monday, March 5. Order your book now.  Check out the rest of Heller's book tour herePre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, or an Independent Bookstore.

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