Book Review : Jeremy Robert Johnson - In the River (2017)
* All of the royalties for copies of In the River sold in December will be donated to Portland Homeless Family Solutions by the author .*
I don’t have kids. It’s not a life choice or a biological issue, it just hasn’t happened yet. Sometimes happy, healthy heterosexual couples don’t immediately procreate and surrender their lives to the bliss of parenthood. And I sure don’t get authors who feel compelled to write fiction about it changed their fucking lives, made them at peace, ushered new challenges they weren’t ready for, blah, blah, blah. So, I don’t read much of it. But I’ve read Jeremy Robert Johnson’s In the River recently and while it has little to do with conventional parenthood fiction, it proved that it doesn’t always have to be boring.
In the River is quite simple. Or at least it initially presents itself as such. A man takes his son fishing near the river. They struggle against their respective insecurity and work together for what promises to become a bonding experience, until the son gets pulled under the water by something. A fish, a demon, a malevolent presence in the water that preyed on their vulnerabilities. Confronted to his worst nightmare, the man frightfully looks for his son in the water. The more time passes, the more it become evident that the river will not let him escape with his child. At least not until it got what it wanted out of the man.
Let’s discuss the fathterhood themes first, because while they’re deep and multifaceted, they’re by far the simplest thing about In the River. The man alternates between cold, hard reality where he constantly needs to take decision for his son’s safety and survival and quick flashbacks of a troublesome past where his own parents failed to properly live up to their responsibilities. That struck me: this is parenthood. Being taken care for all your life and suddenly being trusted in that position for another person. Living with the constant worry that something will happen to them or even worse, that what happened to you will happened to them.
And boy, things do happen in the 137 pages of this book.
If In the River introduces itself like a cute Hemingway-like parable, it doesn’t stay this way for very long. Once the boy sinks underwater, the novella takes a whole other turn and a new layer of symbolism is revealed to the reader. The river itself being the most complicated. In the book, it is this powerful, unstoppable and ever shifting force that you would never go against unless circumstances demanded it. Think of it in Pre-Socratic terms: Heraclitus once said “you cannot step into the same river twice.” That is the nature of the man’s problem in In the River. Going back to the river that took his son.
I really liked In the River, but it may or may not be your cup of tea. It’s wild. winding and unpredictable in a way only Jeremy Robert Johnson can be. There are abrupt shifts in tone and genre sometimes right in the middle of a page. Personally, I live to find books that do that, but it might be too aggressive for some. That said, since Johnson is donating the royalties for December sales to a charity, you have the perfect occasion to challenge yourself, broaden your horizons and help Portland homeless families at the same time. The question is: are you up for it? But what question could extend to Jeremy Robert Johnson’s entire bibliography: it’s there and it’s going to kick you in the balls, but are you up for it?