Thursday, October 23, 2014

Slipping Into the Skin: Down in the River by Ryan Blacketter

Down in the River
by Ryan Blacketter
Review by Christian Winn

It’s the hot end of summer when I sit down to re-read Down in the River, Ryan Blacketter’s remarkable, darkly startling and endearing debut novel.  I’m in a park abutting my own city’s river, and it’s got to be 90 degrees in the shade.  But, I’m feeling cold–the chill wrap of wet air all around me on an early winter evening as I stand amidst pines outside a café in Eugene, Oregon.

By the end of page two, it is not August in Idaho, and I am not a forty-seven-year old writer drinking iced coffee in the quiet afternoon.  I’m Lyle Rettew, and I’m sixteen, and I’m feeling lost, doomed, wishful, haunted, and still so cold.  I’m the new kid in town watching would-be friends I long to connect with mill about the café.

Then it’s on to page three, and I’m fully into Ryan Blacketter’s world once more, and so happy to be here.

Such is the power of great fiction–to be transported, to live within characters’ skin and spirits, to understand how it is to stand in that cool clutch of trees as Lyle does.  Blacketter puts me there so vividly, with tight, detailed, heartfelt passages such as this:
A far train shrieked a high note of panic. Then came the ding ding of a warning gate. The air sang with the freight passing and he heard it occasionally under the rain. When the headlights of a turning car swept the grove, trees staggering in light and shadow, he went toward the café door, hesitated, then ducked back into the trees. He didn’t want to be laughed at.
This passage is wholly indicative of the precision of language and emotion of the entirety of Down in the River, and this is what stitches artful meaning into the often macabre and shrouded plotline where Lyle, in the fractured aftermath of his twin sister’s death, endeavors to break into a mausoleum to steal a young girl’s remains.  His motives are noble, at least within his youthful sideways mind–he wants to lay this girl peacefully to rest, deliver her to her rightful grave.

Thus begins the quest at the heart of Down in the River, as Lyle successfully extracts the remains and sets off with the bones in his backpack.  Along the way Lyle endeavors to enlist Rosa, the girl he’s deeply into, to come with him on this morbid and heartbreaking quest.  Events unfurl and the dark tension rises as Lyle tries to explain to the kids he knows, the adults he is fleeing, and to himself just how right the decision really is.  He's snatching these bones in order to save this young woman’s soul, and maybe his own.

Blacketter so wonderfully describes instances of physical and emotional grace in this troubled, dim narrative, especially as Lyle and Rosa come together through all these genuine, if twisted, events.
He opened his coat to the bottleneck poking his shirt, grinning. He pulled out the Mad Dog, broke the seal, and drank. They crawled into the concrete mouth and sat down on the grass. Into the whale’s hole sprinkled a circle of snow in front of them, drawing their eyes while they ate. Then Rosa pushed herself back, leaning against the concave wall so that her head was bowed. Her moonstone earrings took the dim light into them. Her face was lost in the black, but her anxiety and fatigue drifted into him like a mist.
These startling, real, gorgeous lines made me sit up from my perch beside the river, and say, “Wow,” aloud, feeling the stark chill and longing of these kids on the run.

It’s rare to be transported so vividly and convincingly into a cold, broken world like Lyle and Rosa’s, but Blacketter does it for 208 wise, tight, beautifully dark pages.  And as Lyle’s quest unfolds with messy inevitability, I am rooting for this young man, I am living as this young man, I am learning to feel as skewed and caring as Lyle does.  And what a pleasure this is, and what great inspiration to a fellow writer the experience of Down in the River is.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.

Christian Winn is the author of Naked Me, a short story collection now out from Dock Street Press.  He lives in Boise, Idaho where he writes and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at Boise State University.

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