I Am The River is a novel by T E Grau and is published by Lethe Press. Anyone who visits this blog regularly will know how big a fan I am of Ted’s writing with his previous, shorter works featuring heavily in my year’s best picks. Those frequent visitors may also be aware of my penchant for historical stories too so it will be no surprise to them to learn that this novel’s setting, during the years following the Vietnam War, raised my expectations to even greater heights.
The novel’s protagonist is Israel Broussard, a G.I. echoing Thomas Wolfe’s sentiment that you can’t go home again, stranded and adrift in Bangkok, battling his personal demons via therapy – courtesy of both medics and bottles. Broussard is haunted by his experiences, literally – the ghosts of his past manifest as a huge, black dog which follows him everywhere: Black Shuck.
So too, Israel is plagued by visions of a river rising up around him, a less overt image than the black dog and perhaps one related to his experiences. The scenes in Bangkok are related in first person, present tense and, as such, are wide open to the interpretation of unreliable narration – Broussard is, after all, a damaged man. However, this narrative choice is important in the overall construction of the novel, intermingling as it does with third person, past tense flashback sections detailing the mission which proved to be Broussard’s downfall. This swapping of narrative styles is effective in creating a sense of disorientation in the reader but also allows a brilliant masterstroke towards the story’s conclusion when the two styles merge as Broussard’s personal journey into his heart of darkness reaches a critical point. I’m a huge fan of books where narrative styles are used in creative ways and this is one of the finest examples I’ve seen in a long time.
The mission which provides the straw to break Broussard’s back is no ordinary one, rather a Psy-Ops exercise carried out in Laos. It’s another great decision on the author’s part to choose Laos as a location. The country was invaded and occupied by North Vietnam and was used as a “safe” area for their troops to retreat into as well as a supply line. Unable to officially send troops into Laos to engage combat, America instead dropped two million tons of bombs on the country (almost as many as during the whole of World War Two) – creating a legacy in which 300 people are still killed to this day every year because of unexploded ordnance. The details of the mission are cleverly kept a secret from the reader as well as Broussard and his fellow expendables. When it is finally revealed, it seems outlandish and ridiculous – on a par with the CIA’s list of plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro – but when it’s deployed… oh man, it sent a shiver down my spine. There’s some brilliant writing going on here –as is the case throughout the novel – pulling the reader into the bizarre events which unfold.
The culmination of these scenes, as far as Broussard is concerned, is an act of extreme violence which sows the seeds for his subsequent fall from grace. It’s a brutal scene, one that’s difficult to read. The violence is graphic but not gratuitous – far from it, there could be no other way to write such a significant moment, to show the depths to which war can bring a man.
Yet again, I’ve been blown away by Ted’s writing. A stated earlier, the use of different narrative techniques is outstanding. In particular, some of the first person sections have an almost poetic feel to them, a stream of consciousness from a damaged mind reflected not only in the choice of words but also, very cleverly, the formatting of those words on the page. Whilst this is mainly an internal story, the scene setting of the environments in which it occurs is also handled magnificently with some striking imagery which will linger long in the mind; the spectacular Plain of Jars, the megalithic landscape which is the site of the mission and hundreds of flames – burnt offerings - floating down a river to name but two.
There’s much reference to the belief of wandering ghosts throughout the novel and, in essence, that is what Broussard is. Far from home, (and all of the prejudice he faced there as a black man from the southern states), he’s a literal lost soul looking for redemption. It’s his journey towards that goal which is the story of I Am The River and it’s a journey I’m glad I took. This is an outstanding piece of writing and, given that there is so much in it, it’s surprising that it’s at the shorter end of the word-count for a novel. It’s a book that satisfies on so many levels and one which has raised my expectation for what Ted comes up with next to even higher levels.