The River Gods is one of the most searching portraits of our country I’ve ever read.
The River Gods
The River Gods is a novel in fragments, a mix of fact and fiction, in which various inhabitants of the area around what is now Northampton, Massachusetts, from the eleventh century through the 1990s, speak of their lives and of the community, a place haunted by the pervasive melancholy of extinguished desire.
Each of the voices — including a character named Brian Kiteley and his family, the original Native American inhabitants, the actor Richard Burton, Sojourner Truth, Richard Nixon, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jonathan Edwards, and many nameless others — ruminate on a past that is startlingly present and tangible. The main character, though, is the world of Northampton, irrevocably woven into the fabric of Western history, yet still grounded by the everyday concerns of health, money, food, love, and family. It is a novel of voices, the living and the dead, that illuminate the passage of time.
In The River Gods, Brian Kiteley masterfully employs his patent narrative method of uncanny subtraction, removing the ligatures of conventional fiction the better to provide a field of implication in which the historical mysteries of America can resonate to maximum effect. In response to the post modern insight that everything is happening at the same time, he brings demonstrable proof of the fact in this luminous, perfectly sculpted novel whose sentences flow as easily through the mind of a nine year old boy in 1960’s America as they do that of an 18th century Puritan divine. The River Gods is one of the most searching portraits of our country I’ve ever read.
There is nothing harder in fiction than the creation of a good man. When the writer chooses to couch his narrative in the first person, the task becomes almost impossible. Kiteley makes it work by recognizing that absorption in a science or craftsmanship or art can be a man’s salvation even in societies that least value such disinterestedness. It is possible that Brian Kiteley may not manage anything so perfectly achieved as this first novel.
Brian Kiteley, a writer of great delicacy, perspicacity, and guile, has in The River Gods presented us with a cornucopia of bittersweet vignettes: glimpses of the lives and deaths, the loves and larks and sorrows of a New England town, told outside chronology and inside the vision of several centuries interlaced. The book may have its precedents, but it is in essence strikingly original, and it deserves to become a classic, for all its sophistication a very American one: it tells us who we have been, in a way we never could have guessed.