Two college friends’ leisurely river trek becomes an ordeal of fire and human malice.
For his fourth novel, Heller swaps the post-apocalyptic setting of his previous book, The Dog Stars (2012), for present-day realism—in this case a river in northern Canada where Dartmouth classmates Jack and Wynn have cleared a few weeks for fly-fishing and whitewater canoeing. Jack is the sharp-elbowed scion of a Colorado ranch family, while Wynn is a more easygoing Vermonter—a divide that becomes more stark as the novel progresses—but they share a love of books and the outdoors. They’re so in sync early on that they agree to lose travel time to turn back and warn a couple they’d overheard arguing that a forest fire is fast approaching. It’s a fateful decision: They discover the woman, Maia, near death and badly injured, apparently by her homicidal husband, Pierre. When Wynn unthinkingly radios Pierre that she’s been found alive, Wynn and Jack realize they’re now targets as well. Heller confidently manages a host of tensions—Jack and Wynn becoming suspicious of each other while watching for Pierre, straining to keep Maia alive, and paddling upriver to reach civilization and escape the nearing blaze. And his pacing is masterful as well, briskly but calmly capturing the scenery in slower moments, then running full-throttle and shifting to barreling prose when danger is imminent. (The fire sounds like “turbines and the sudden shear of a strafing plane, a thousand thumping hooves in cavalcade, the clamor and thud of shields clashing, the swelling applause of multitudes….”) And though the tale is a familiar one of fending off the deadliness of the wilderness and one's fellow man, Heller has such a solid grasp of nature (both human and the outdoors) that the storytelling feels fresh and affecting. In bringing his characters to the brink of death (and past it), Heller speaks soberly to the random perils of everyday living.
An exhilarating tale delivered with the pace of a thriller and the wisdom of a grizzled nature guide.