You don’t come back from a war alone. Anyone who knows a combat veteran will confirm this. The past, provided it suffers sufficient agitation, is a restless entity, forever disrupting the causal linearity most of us take for granted. “Every love story is a ghost story,” David Foster Wallace wrote in his final novel, The Pale King. We could readily add that every war story is a ghost story too.
T. E. Grau’s I Am The River is certainly a ghost story insofar as it is best understood in the cyclical causality of trauma. The past doesn’t stay put; it weaves in and out of the narrative like a surgeon’s knife, severing Broussard, the protagonist, from his surroundings and implanting him in cavities of experience presumably left behind. Vietnam strangled the lives of many a young soldier with their own histories–like Broussard, they didn’t quite go home, even those who, unlike Broussard, did.
Broussard lives in Bangkok, tethered to an unanswerable question and walled by the roar of the river. Memories of a night gone horribly wrong belch from the black sludge of the past as he tries to stay awake, since to sleep is to visit the realm of ghosts. One ghost in particular, a savage hound, shadows Broussard’s wanderings for a chance to press the life from him. There is no rest for Broussard, the shamed last soldier of an undocumented squad in neutral territory burdened with an incomprehensible mission. The past stretches into the horizon and beyond, like a black fog rising from a jungle without end.
For readers of Grau’s acclaimed collection, The Nameless Dark, a few elements in I Am The River will seem familiar. Broussard’s self-imposed exile due to accusations of cowardice will evoke Capitan Chilton in “White Feather.” Even the feather itself has made its way into these pages. Reader’s shouldn’t expect, however, more Lovecraftian mythos in I Am The River. Grau is stretching into Joseph Conrad’s territory here, with his sensibility for deep horror and impenetrable mystery always close at hand to bring the literary element to the fore.
I Am The River is an astoundingly well-crafted, compelling, and delightfully unsettling affair. Grau’s talent for setting is as palpable as ever; the jungle of Vietnam is everywhere, like an insidious fantasy that you dare not articulate, even on the reeking city streets of Bangkok. His penchant for deeply tormented characters unfurls in full color, as does his flair for the nightmare. If you are one of the many readers who enjoyed The Nameless Dark, you won’t leave disappointed. For newcomers to Grau in search of literary weirdness in a mode similar to Michael Wehunt and Brian Evenson, this is an excellent place begin.
All this is certainly enough to justify a review, but what really recommends I Am The River is Grau’s sentences. Take the first one, for instance: “I need to hide in plain sight, here at the dead center of the world, for just a little while longer” (9). Grau’s “dead center” lodged between two clauses–a dead center itself–beautifully balances the well-deployed cliche of hiding in plain sight against the necessity of holding out “a little while longer.” The sentence deteriorates on the other side of “dead center” with a waning dependent clause, imitating the dissipation of resolve, the lagging will to live in the face of the recurring night terror of Broussard’s living history.
On the following page, Grau writes: “The doctor would see me last, because I was estrangier and demanded extra scrutiny. A ripening underneath a secret gaze” (10). A ripening underneath a secret gaze. Peel the phrase apart. Feel the “ripening” evoke the sweet and bitter blend of fruits swelling below their distended husks. Let “underneath” bury the ripening fruit beneath the earth, while “secret” hollows out a room, white and placid like those used for criminal interrogations. You are left with “gaze,” a secret one, no less. When you find yourself at the end of the sentence, you are alienated from what was tossed, sickeningly, like a plum splitting with rot, into your hands. You imagine a secret gaze, the distorted screen of a recorded criminal’s confession. You wake up in a nightmare, as Broussard has and will again.
With I Am The River, Grau blossoms into a fully accomplished voice in literary horror (or, perhaps, the literary weird). My resolve to keep track of his writing career is stronger now than ever. For readers who prefer their horror fiction to ring with a little depth (but not too much), or for readers who simply enjoy a story that sucks you in and doesn’t let you free, I Am The River is for you. This is certainly, from what I’ve read so far, the finest release of 2018.
-Justin A. Burnett