First-novelist Hillmer has written a coming-of-age tale that's also an adventure yarn, a romance, and a sensitive portrayal of how men relate to each other. The surprise is that it all works. Unable to find other employment, 19-year-old Roy signs on with Kern River Search and Rescue -- known unofficially as the hookmen because of the grappling hooks they use to pull the bodies of drowned campers and tourists from the turbulent waters of the Kern. The crew is led by an acerbic old man named Crawdad. Under his tutelage, Roy becomes a skilled rafter and pushes himself to acts of physical courage. He finds an enigmatic friend in crewmate Walker, a Vietnam veteran who obsessively kayaks the most forbidding stretches of the river and creates twisted abstract sculptures. Roy, in turn, is haunted by the faces of the river's victims -- especially the first one he sees, a young woman who looks as if ""one touch could bring her back. One kiss."" Meanwhile, his mother and sister have moved away from his father, fleeing his drunken rages, and Roy assumes financial and emotional responsibility for him. When he meets Rita, a vulnerable woman with a secret past, they begin, cautiously, to fall in love. With Rita, he finds tenderness and shares an appreciation of the California wilderness. She shows him her cherished part of the river, a serene spot where graceful herons nest, and her delicate drawings of them. When Crawdad asks Roy and Walker to join him on his dream trip of rafting the perilous rapids and cataracts of the upper Kern, all of their destinies intertwine. Events culminate in a breathtaking daredevil expedition that brings resolution to a long-simmering dispute between Crawdad and Walker, and to Roy's relationships with Rita and his father -- but not without a surprising and tragic consequence. With its counterpoint of brawny action and poetic description, this finely honed novel has all the pleasing contradictions of the river itself.