With every new book of his, I find myself struggling to come up with new ways of praising Jeremy Robert Johnson. I do it in part because repetitiveness strikes me as lazy, but also because every book of his is wildly different from the previous one. As I’ve mentioned before (see how hard it is to keep it fresh?), Johnson is like Brian Evenson or Stephen Graham Jones in the sense that you never know what you’re going to get next, but you know it will be amazing. In the case of In the River, a surprise late summer release from Lazy Fascist Press, Johnson reinvents himself one again with a narrative anchored in pain, full of magic, and in which he uses white space on the page for effect much like a poet.
The plot of In the River is deceptively simple, especially for Johnson. A father and son go for a fishing lesson in the jungle, but a mistake quickly changes their day from one of learning and bonding into a nightmare that will lead the father into dangerous parts of the jungle, the lair of a powerful being, and ultimately to the sea, where he will encounter everything he wishes to find and exactly the opposite.
In the River is an uncomfortable read because it slashes into you like a thousand new scalpels hungry for the innermost fears of your soul. Johnson takes loss and squeezes every possible ounce of suffering hiding inside it. There is adventure, danger, violence, magic, and physical pain in this novella, but it’s mostly about loss, guilt, and the tendency of humans to desire impossible things when thrown into a universe where only suffering and sadness exist. Simply put, this is a text with its roots in that dark, scary place beyond judgment and rationalization where death seems like an understandable option:
So the man thought to grab the heaviest stone he could find, to set it on his chest and let the weight hold him down until he stopped knowing this was a world which had existed, but the fire in his lungs and the strength left in his body betrayed him and he found himself at the surface of the river, drifting until he came to rest against a piling of rocks.
Unlike narratives that use the father figure as a literary device to explain the flaws of the offspring, In the River sees the highs and lows of that figure from the perspective of the parent. The man begins the story as The Father, a strong, protective figure who manages to provide what his son requires of him: love, food, emotional support, valuable life lessons, positive reinforcement, and the moral, physical, intellectual, and philosophical building blocks that will help the child successfully transition into adolescence and then adulthood. Unfortunately, an event changes all that, and the result is a shattered man who can no longer see himself as, or be, The Father. Instead, he is a mistake, a wounded animal howling at the edge of the river, a lost soul thrown into a maelstrom of agony, horror, and self-reproach.
As with a lot of Johnson’s work, this one begins in the known world and then enters something else, a world of spirits and magic. However, the weirdness this time comes from pain and never leaves that realm. Loss is at the center of this narrative, and by the time the third acts rolls around and a collection of voices recount their suffering, the heart of the reader is already so tender that every line is like salt on an open wound. And the weirdest thing about that is it is enjoyable because suffering at the hands of a very capable storyteller who understands human emotion is always a pleasure regardless of how heart-wrenching the narrative at hand is.
While seeing Johnson exploring new territory is nothing new, he does so in this book while doing something he’d never done before: using white space on the page for effect. With nothing before or after, some words and passages are allowed to grow in readers’ eyes and brain, and that leads to stronger literary punches. Furthermore, this narrative makes it clear that the author worked out a deal between brutality and beauty and allowed the literary flair that can be found in a lot of his previous work to blossom unchecked in an attempt to make the soul-crushing parts a tad more manageable:
He followed the beetle with his eyes, down to the water’s edge. There the leaves wrapped around his wound pulled loose in the current and swirled out and over the smooth stones of the bank and then drifted toward the middle of the river. The man’s eyes stayed there and his thoughts scattered as if each was carried away on those lost leaves, waves of Please and No and Why and I can’t move and Let me die and Let me rise and always The boy the boy the boy spinning out and away from him.
From his start as a cult author to his current status as one of the most unique and exciting voices in weird fiction, Johnson’s career has been full of outstanding writing and constant reinvention. In the River is no different: this is superb fiction with a raw, throbbing, aching heart at its core that is far too big to be contained within the book’s pages but that is, by some bizarre magic, still there. This is so good that, ultimately, any attempt at analysis is forced to end with a rather ineloquent statement: if you’re not reading Jeremy Robert Johnson, you need to fix that immediately.
In the River
by Jeremy Robert Johnson
Lazy Fascist Press; 140 p.