WATERBORNE by Bruce Murkoff


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Construction of the Hoover Dam attracts a fine cast of characters in a solid debut.

The lives of three heartbroken people—an engineer, a young divorcée, and a furious young fighter—converge in southern Nevada, the only healthy spot in an equally heartbroken and battered country in the last days of the Hoover administration. Young engineer Filius Poe brings a stellar resume from his Wisconsin home after years of increasingly responsible positions building minor dams. Emotionally numb following the sailing death of his nine-year-old son and the sympathetic death of his wife, burdens for which he blames himself, Poe is living only to work, smoke, and drink. Lena McCardell has fled her lifetime home in Oklahoma with her young son Burr after the discovery of her salesman husband’s bigamy. Pint-sized professional ruffian Lew Beck has scuttled in from Los Angeles, leaving behind his clueless immigrant parents, a trail of barely breathing bodies, and the humanity he lost in childhood. These three, and a dozen or so carefully sketched supporting characters, join the thousands of workers, some professional but most barely skilled, using brute force and brilliant engineering to wrench the Colorado River from its course in order to build the biggest dam in the world, a marvel that will plug in the desert and make today’s Las Vegas possible. The sweet, careful, mutual attractions of Lena and Filius and of the engineer for the boy are handled skillfully, as is the terrifying malevolence of the increasingly murderous Beck, who haunts the story as powerfully as Iago. The construction scenes are as clear and compelling as the newsreels and documentary films in which writer Murkoff must have steeped himself. Detracting only slightly is the tendency of characters to speak either in expository prose or ’30s movie dialogue, the dark side of watching too many newsreels.

Ambitious and ultimately successful. Like the big dam.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-4038-8
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2004