Peter Heller's The River One of the Year's Best

The River (2019)
By Peter Heller
Knopf/Borzoi Books, 272 pages.

If the measure of a great book is heart-stopping drama, memorable characters, a tight plot, and evocative prose, The River is a strong candidate for the best novel of 2019. Imagine a mash between James Dickey (Deliverance, 1970) and Jack London that’s less histrionic than the first and more eloquently written than the second. Toss in a touch of Kristin Hannah and that’s a bit like what The River is like.

Heller, who gained public acclaim with his post-apocalyptic the Dog Stars (2012), is a master of taking us inside the minds of human beings in isolation and what they feel and fear. He is not the sort to give us last-minute rescues or deus ex machina heroes. Instead he wants us to imagine what is to be done when Fate holds the high cards.  

The River takes us to the northern Canadian wilderness. Two collegiate soulmate friends, Jack and Wynn, take to the Maskwa River with the intent of challenging their athletic bodies as they paddle their well-appointed canoe, sleep out under the stars, cook fish they catch, read some pulp Westerns, and enjoy the solitude. They are adventuresome and simpatico even though they are temperamentally different. Jack is a rugged Coloradan who carries a deep-seated childhood hurt that has left him suspicious in a hair-trigger manner. Wynn, by contrast, is a hulking Vermonter who is a bit clumsy around women, has an Eagle Scout’s sense of duty, and a sometimes too-trusting disposition. But their mutual love of the outdoors and each other’s company makes Jack and Wynn a great team.

As if to underscore their isolation, Heller populates the book with just four other characters: JD and Brent, two hell-raising Texas rednecks; and a couple (Mai and Pierre) whom Jack and Wynn at first know only though raised-voice arguments slicing through the fog. Jack and Wynn face the preliminary dilemma of how to communicate to them what they have a observed: a gigantic forest fire some 30 miles in back of them.

This is, however, far more than your standard idyll-goes-wrong beat-the-clock tale. As in Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone (2018), Heller’s novel is about human beings in the bosom of an impersonal environment. Forget “Mother” Nature as nurturing; in The River she is silent, indifferent, and unforgiving. If Nature has a personality it is that of Shiva the Destroyer, not some benevolent Earth Mother.

In such a scenario, the only subjective values are held by humans who venture into the blue and green void. What would you do if fleeing animals underscored your need to make haste with several dangerous stretches of white water and a few sure-kill waterfalls requiring portage lying ahead in your path? Would you care about the fate of two louts more interested in drinking and making sexist jokes get out? Would you double back and lose precious time to look for a missing person? Would you share dwindling supplies? Incur someone’s wrath?

Jack and Wynn’s dilemma is pretty basic. There is only one way out and the back country is filled with ways to die in addition to the fire: drowning, starvation, bears, devastating injury, crazy people with guns, and–if since it’s late fall–they could freeze to death before the fire overtakes them. They must also come to grips with their own stupidity; when they packed, they forgot the one thing that could save their lives: a satellite phone.

Because Heller is such a gifted writer, he easily leads us into waters in which we expect things that never materialize. This gives him the leeway to spring the unexpected. I will say no more except that it’s been a long time since I’ve been so emotionally wrung out by a novel. The River left me shattered.

Rob Weir


Discover Sebastain Martorana and Cig Harvey

Subject Matters: Sebastian Martorana in Sculpture
Eating Flowers: Sensations of Cig Harvey
Ogunquit Museum of Art (Ogunquit, Maine)
Through October 31, 2019

[Click on images for larger size. Blue = live link]

Unless you’re lucky enough to make it Ogunquit, Maine, in the next several weeks these two shows will have closed. More’s the pity, but here are two wonderful artists whose work may be unfamiliar to you. You should definitely check out their online portfolios and keep your eyes peeled in case their work shows up near you.

Sebastian Martorana (b. 1981) is an instructor at the Maryland Institute of Art. He works in various media and has won some important commissions in the greater Baltimore/Washington metro area. He is best known, though, for his marble sculptures. His commission work tends to be weighty in the way that sculpt-for-hire work tends to be, but the Ogunquit show captures him in a more playful mood.

These works fall into two categories. The first is whimsical, as in capturing Sesame Street characters Kermit the Frog and Sam the Eagle in stone. There is something about marbleizing each that endows them with ironic

It’s as if Sam is usurping the national bird for our national hearts, and Kermit’s drapery is suggestive of poking fun at past monuments of presidents posing as Roman nobles. You can’t look at these without both admiring them and chortling.

Perhaps more impressive, though, are works that take prosaic objects
such as a Teddy bear, a cushion, or a soiled towel and render them realistically—again in marble. I had a hard time looking away from the folds in the towel as I contemplated both the precision and degree of difficulty involved in executing it. It is at once ordinary and extraordinary.

It would be safe to say that I adored the photographs and poetry of Cig Harvey. She was born in Devonshire, England in 1973, but now lives in Rockport, Maine. Ms. Harvey is the real deal; she even has a Wikipedia page that highlights her diverse works and the various honors that have come her way. The eye-arching title of her show at Ogunquit, Eating Flowers, comes from the fact that part of her work for the museum involved helping it rethink its delightful sculpture garden. The inside display highlights images from three of her past portfolio/exhibition works, plus her merged photo/video projects, and a smattering of her evocative musings. 

Harvey’s photos have often drawn comparisons to Magritte. I wouldn’t call them that enigmatic, but she does evoke Magritte’s sense of the solitary. Some of her most striking images are of her daughters Jesse and Scout in isolation:  a pink coat against a high key beach bleeding into a fading ocean and sky; tussled hair and a rich blue velvet dress in a bank of snow. Be sure to check out her “motion” pictures, my favorite being that of a young girl staring out the window of a battered red pickup truck as a New England snowstorm swirls–a still image against moving flakes and a blank face that invites a thousand backstories. 

The greatest photographers use images to tell stories. What does one make of her frozen apples? Are they memento mori or reminders that those doomed globes are promises of spring’s renewal? How about a bagged spray of flowers lying upon a paint-strained table? Is the fading bouquet a grim reminder of endings, the raging of a soul insistent upon wringingbeauty from decay, or just a wondrously artful arrangement that signifieth nothing? You can attach as much or as little meaning as you wish from Harvey’s work and walk away stunned.

Rob Weir


Linda Ronstadt Documentary is Like Falling in Love Again

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019)
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman
Greenwich Entertainment, PG-13, 95 minutes

Legions of heterosexual male Baby Boomers once had serious fantasy crushes on three women: Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, and Linda Ronstadt. Between them they could fill a good-sized hall with Grammy Awards and platinum records. Each was the mistress of her craft and were drop-dead gorgeous. But just one also racked up two Country Music Association Awards, an Emmy, a Tony, the largest–selling Spanish language album of all time, recorded with Rubin Blades, scored with a crossover R & B record with Aaron Neville, sang jazz standards with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, and made a trio album with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton: Linda Ronstadt. She has recorded with everyone from Frank Zappa and Philip Glass to Neil Young, Earl Scruggs, and Johnny Cash. About the only thing she never did was write songs, but few have ever interpreted them with such aplomb.

The Sound of My Voice documents Ronstadt’s remarkable life and career. Don’t let the last name fool you; Linda Mare Ronstadt was born into a Mexican-American household in Tucson, the third child of the former Ruth Mary Copeman (1914-82), a homemaker, and Gilbert Ronstadt (1911-95), a merchant and a fine singer in his own right except–as Linda joked–when he tried to use his baritone voice to sing the tenor parts to live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. If you’re wondering about the surname, chalk it up to several generations of colonialism and immigration. Gilbert taught Linda scores of Mexican corridos, canciones, and mariachi standards.

Ronstadt lit out for Los Angeles at age 18 in 1964 and never looked back. To the best of my knowledge she never recorded “How Can I Keep From Singing?” but if I had to pick a song title to describe her, this would be it. As directors Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman show, making music was never a career choice per se; it was hard-wired into Ronstadt’s DNA. She cared nothing for genres; if a song moved her, she sang it. Man, did she ever sing it! It’s not quite true, but you could come away from this film thinking Linda Ronstadt invented the power ballad. The film contains superb early footage of Ronstadt with The Stone Poneys, her first LA band, and it was apparent from the start she was special. In 1967, she covered a Michael Naismith song, “Different Drum,” which had already been a hit for the Greenbriar Boys. Or should I say, she inhabited it? Who today even remembers any other version of the song? We see Ronstadt’s trademark style already in place: open with a gentle, vulnerable touch and explode into the mix.

Footage such as this makes the documentary sparkle. Because there is film to color each transition, there is no need for a static Ken Burns-like approach that mixes stills backed with voiceovers and just as much original music as copyright law allows. Instead we hear Ronstadt singing and narrating in her own voice. Although she did not do formal sit-down interviews with the directors–she now suffers from Parkinson’s Disease–the film has a tight arc and immediacy that far surpasses the sort of retrospective one might see on MTV or VH-1.

Ronstadt also dazzles because she was to music what Lucille Ball was to television: a rare woman in the male-dominated entertainment world that dictated her own terms. The pop industry is both fickle and inherently conservative. Make a hit and industry heads want more in the same vein until the vessels are bloodless. We watch as time and again Ronstadt floated projects she was told would ruin her career. Each time she plowed ahead and each time she was right.

 A short list of Ronstadt pop hits includes: “Blue Bayou,” “It’s So Easy,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Crazy,” and “You’re No Good.” She was far and away the biggest-selling female artist of the 1970s and early 1980s. You can imagine how moguls must have torn out their hair to see her dressed in Mexican garb fronting rope-twirling gauchos, plucking songs from the Great American Songbook, prancing about a Broadway stage in Pirates of Penzance, making films, and telling anyone who listened that her favorite duet was with Kermit the Frog! She also mentored such young talent as Karla Bonoff, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, J. D. Souther, and scores of others. Ronstadt comes across as both generous and guileless–one quicker to praise the talents of others than to blow her own horn.

In 2011, Parkinson’s silenced Ronstadt. We watch her struggle to control her shaking as she sits in a room with two musical nephews singing a classic Mexican song. She doesn’t want to sing along but, as she puts it, “It’s family so what can you do?” We know instantly that she could still sing if she could forced herself to stay within her limitations. But how can she be at ease when the “sound of my own voice” is different from what is in her head? Call it a bittersweet footnote to a sterling career and a remarkable film. The latter is surely a highlight of 2019, a year in which documentaries thus far have outshined feature films.

Rob Weir