The Names of Rivers BOOK review

Book Reviews
The Names of Rivers BOOK review
Jun 15, 2002, 15:24

THE NAMES OF RIVERS by Daniel Buckman; Akashic Books, 2002

The Names Of Rivers is not big on narration. The plot can be summarized in a few sentences and its development falters now and again. What this novel emerges out of is atmospheres, images and poetic conceits though the story it relates is often bleak and ugly.

It uncovers the ways and means by which an individual's deepest motivations are implanted, cultivated thereafter and how they play themselves out. While author Daniel Buckman's vocabulary is impressionistic and very dream-like, he has done an amazing job depicting the mechanisms by which values, prejudices and sense of fate is communicated from one generation to the next within a single family as well as in society, all via intimate details: how the sins of the father are passed along to the son.

Buckman's tale revolves around the Konicks, a father, his two songs and grandson. They're all Midwesterners living in the awful stasis of the small town of Watega, a place that was gripped by economic and cultural stagnation following WWI and never recovered. All four are pull stints in the military and scarred as a consequence, either physically, psychologically or both. However, it's gradually revealed that each man's visible wounds and/or foibles preceded their respective tours of duty; these were merely brought to the surface, via physical manifestation by their military experiences. In some cases the injuries brought nobility to their inherent shortcomings. For instance, small town hooligan Bruce Konick leaves Watega as a locally notorious bad seed and returns a pitied war casualty. His father Bruno, distanced himself from the horrors he witnessed when liberating DachauBruce by taking every opportunity to escape into ecstatic reveries observing the simple beauties of Nature and continued to do the same when confronted by Bruce's ongoing career of violence and self-degradation as well by his grandson Luke's desperate quixotic devotion to Bruce, his father.

No one connects with the events occurring around them, none seems to know how to; it appears they were never taught how. The way Buckman portrays it, perhaps they're better off that way. There's no heroism shown during war time, no humble virtues—sense of community, family loyalty, individual pride (and forget about love!)—on the home front. Unrelenting negative.

As harrowing as the underlying story is, is just how beautiful it its telling, and the beauty's all Nature's. The bulk of The Names of Rivers, is descriptive. If one character is searching for another, the reader is totally immersed in the sights, sounds and tactile sensations encountered: the sting and cold of rain blowing into the face, the shining and blurring of light hitting turbulent puddles, the acrid stink of cordite cutting through the dark from a frantically braking truck. Many of the scenes depicted are pastoral: deer winding through woodlands to drink off a sparkling stream as wood-smoke wafts in from a nearby farmstead and the sun's brilliance flickers like semaphore as legions of clouds scud past. By synchronizing these heady, ambient descriptions with the various incidents in characters' narratives, Buckman pulls the reader inside their skin and into their respective heads. He doesn't spell out their thoughts per sé but by reconstructing the enviroment they inhabit, evoking their feelings. The weather and landscape chosen to reflect their inner states.

The Names of Rivers is an exultant if sobering read. Very much recommended for the experience as well as the message.

-Howard W.

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