Review: Into This River I Drown by TJ Klune

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Into This River I DrownBenji Green is still trying to cope with the loss of his father, Big Eddie Green.  Big Eddie was not only Benji’s father, “the best Father in the whole wide world”, but Big Eddie was also his best friend, his confidant, the person who kept Benji centered, made him feel loved and safe.  It’s been five years since his death by drowning when his truck overturned in a river but to his son it feels like yesterday. Benji tried leaving to go to college but it didn’t work out. Now back in Roseland, Oregon, Benji runs Big Eddie’s Gas and Convenience, just as his father had before dying when Benji was 16.

Benji lives with his mother and her two sisters in the house he grew up.  He is surrounded by places and things that constantly remind him of Big Eddie and he often feels as though his life stopped when his father’s did.  Benji’s nights have always been haunted by nightmares of the river in which his father drowned, mile marker 77 and images of blue feathers swirling around as the waters raged higher.  Benji’s days are haunted too. Fleeting touches of a hand pressed to his neck and grasping his shoulder, a feeling as though someone is there beside him yet when he  turns there is nothing.  But lately, the nightmares have grown worse, more intense until Benji’s feels like he is drowning just like his father.  Sometimes the images come to him during the day, leaving Benji uncertain as to what is real and what  is not.

The whole of Roseland is beginning to feel as though it is waiting, waiting for something to happen.  And when it does, when improbably a man falls from the sky, leaving an impression of wings on the ground, then everything changes for Benji and everyone around him.   This is that story.

It has taken me several weeks before I thought I could make an attempt to write a somewhat rational, less impassioned review of this book.  Trust me this is not the one that would have been written after I completed reading Into This River I Drown for the first time, or even the second time.  I love books and rarely react to them in a dispassionate manner.  I like some, love some, feel disappointed by others and on some occasions, feel so disconnected to the stories, that I feel nothing, a deadly reaction to be sure. Authors never set down to write a story where the reaction by a reader is “huh, I could have been doing my laundry” but I have come across some of those in my time as well.  Into This River I Drown has certainly engendered a multitude of strong feelings in me, because rarely am I absolutely furious with some authors and their stories.  And I will say right now that this book absolutely infuriated me, it had me bawling my eyes out as it pulled feelings about my father and my relationship to him, and had me nodding my head in acknowledgement if not agreement on some issues of faith and religion.  I feel in some parts this is a milestone work for T.J. Klune and a book that undercut itself at the end.  Does this sound like an emotional rollercoaster of a ride?  It should because that is exactly what this book is about.

After having read all of Mr. Klune’s previous works, from BOATK to Burn, and including Tell Me It’s Real, I was not prepared for the tone and narrative that I found within Into This River I Drown (ITRID).  All the characters of the BOATK universe have singular voices that identify them immediately.  The same goes for the scattered, funny and somewhat frazzled outlook of Paul Auster and his friend, Helena Handbasket, from Tell Me It’s Real.  And while Burn is my least favorite story this author has written, I could still tell that it was one of TJ Klune’s by the characters involved and their dialog.  But in ITRID, TJ Klune takes his writing to another higher level.

I found his characters to be richer, with more depth and dimension than anything he has given us to date.  Whether it is Benji, his aunt Nina who is so special in so many ways or his friend Abe, these people will speak to your heart as well as your mind. Now don’t get me wrong I love Bear and the Kid, they are outstanding. But the people of Roseland are something different indeed.  You will find yourself involved in their lives, connected to the town in ways you could never imagine.  There are only a few imperfections that I could see, one that jumps quickly to mind is the character Gabriel who seems far too contemporary rather than unworldly,  Same goes for the Strange Men as they are called. But more than that I cannot say which is very frustrating for a reviewer who does not want to give away spoilers.  This entire book is a spoiler, something I have never really run into before.  Almost any detail I could refer to might be the one spoiler that reveals a significant plot point to the reader.  And I won’t do that.

Into This River I Drown also brings an intense, emotionally laden group of topics at its subject matter.  First and foremost is that of the father and son dynamics, something that has been the focus of many memorable books, poems and movies, whether you are talking about Field of Dreams or the New Testament.  At times I felt as though my heart was being pulled out of my throat, some passages hurt so bad.  Here is an example:

EDWARD BENJAMIN GREEN “BIG EDDIE”

BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER

MAY 27 1960—MAY 31 2007

Fifteen words. Fifteen words is all there is to describe the man who was my father. Fifteen words are all that is left of him. Fifteen words that do nothing. They do nothing to show what kind of man he was. They do nothing to show how when he was happy, his green eyes lit up like fireworks. They do nothing to show how heavy his arm felt when he’d drop it on my shoulder as we walked. They do nothing to show the lines that would form on his forehead when he concentrated. They do nothing to show the immensity of his heart. The vastness that was his soul. Those fifteen words say nothing.

The only time my mother and I ever really quarreled in our lives, with any heat behind it, was deciding what his marker would say. She wanted it to be simple, to the point, like the man himself. He wouldn’t want the superfluous, she told me. He didn’t need more.

I railed against her for this, anger consuming me like fire. How dare you! I shouted. How dare she keep it so short? How could she not make it go on and on and on until those who made such markers would have to harvest an entire mountain for there to be enough room to say what he was, what my father had stood for in his life, all that he had accomplished? How could anyone understand the measure of a man when those fifteen words said nothing about him?

Into this treatise on father and son relationships TJ Klune adds the issues of faith, family and religion. Through Benji and the townspeople of Roseland the author expounds on God, religion and faith, especially their effects on those who have lost their belief in all three.  Even if you are a non-religious person like myself, you will still find yourself lost in thought as one element after another is presented for examination and discussion.  I found this element to be as strong in feeling and discourse as the central focus of fathers and sons.  For me, there were some minor missteps when the plot turns to the heavenly aspects of the story but otherwise its inclusion was just as well done as the rest of the story.

So why was I furious? One reason and one reaon only.  Towards the end of the book, TJ Klune ties ITRID into his Burn series, making this almost a prequel of sorts.  I was beyond flabbergasted when certain Burn elements were remarked upon by characters in this book, features such as the character Seven, a child who burns and sentences such as “The Split One has crossed into Metatron’s field.”  Really?  Why was it necessary to take this book and make it part of Burn?  Other readers won’t find this objectionable but as I was less than enthralled with his world building and characters within that budding series, to find it pulled in at the last minute to this story, well I found it appalling, almost negating the importance of the father son relationship so the author could set the stage for actions to follow in the Burn series.  Infuriating actually as I said before.  Still do.

However jarring I found this aspect of the book to be, the rest of the story still contains so much beauty, heartache and spellbinding storytelling, that if I were you, I would overlook that element and take Into This River I Drown for the remarkable work of fiction it is.   Here is Benji remembering the last time he saw his father:

 He lifted his hand from my shoulder and ruffled my hair. I didn’t know it then, but that touch, those fingers in my hair, would be the last time I would feel my father alive. I would see him again, but he’d be cold under my hand, life long since departed.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have clung to him. I would have looked him in the eyes to see that spark of mischief, that undying intelligence that belied his gruff exterior. If I’d known the inevitable, I would have said everything I felt in my heart and soul. I would have told him thank you for being my father. I would have said that if I’m ever going to be a good man, it’s going to be because of the way he’d raised me. I would have said that building Little House together and fixing up that old Ford until it was so cherry were the best times of my life. I would have said that I didn’t think I’d be able to go on without him.

I would have told him I loved him.

But I didn’t. I didn’t because I didn’t know. I didn’t even say good night. Or good-bye.

How can that not leave you in tears?  Writing like that is the reason I love books.  Writing like that is the reason I will tell you to pick this one up and read it more than once.  Into This River I Drown is a remarkable story, full of life’s greatest joys and greatest sorrows.  Don’t pass this book by. Let it make you furious or sad or happy or any of the  other emotions it will pull out of you.  Because it will be worth it.

Cover Photo by Kyle Thompson, Cover Design by Paul Richmond.  This emotionally charged cover is perfection.  One of the best of the year that I have seen so far in marrying composition to story to great impact.

ebook, 400 pages
Published March 25th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1623804094 (ISBN13: 9781623804091)
url http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=3665