In the last several years I have developed a steep impatience with contemporary fiction. Before I opened M. Conway Dorsey’s debut novel, Lower Reaches of the River (Adelaide Books, 172 pages), it had been quite some time since I had even finished a novel without putting it down in a fit of mistrust and frustration. After I read the last sentence, I thought hard about why Lower Reaches had not incited me; why it kept my attention. I decided, finally, that there were two cardinal reasons.
Before I get to these, let me first open a brief parenthesis to summarize the story. Dorsey’s novel opens deep in the marshlands of the Southern US, where a lost people live, a population of dislocated souls dwelling on a floating village of lashed-together boats and rafts, an almost organic construct, mazed with passageways. This ad hoc archipelago, Camptown, is a secret waystation for the forgotten and disconsolate, run jointly by three people: the local sheriff, barroom owner Early Watts, and oilman Nolan Flynn. Camptown is, on the surface, a charitable organization that helps the wayward start new lives.
But Elliot Hughes, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, discovers Camptown’s dark side as a nexus for drug and sex trafficking. Elliot’s friend and self-appointed guardian, Adley Reynaud, confined at Camptown by the sheriff, finds himself captivated by a seventeenth-century Chinese portolan, or navigational map, given to him by a refugee. Adley, determined to follow the portolan’s arcane clues to their logical end, escapes Camptown, liberating a cast of beguiling minor characters in the process, and all head for the South China Sea. Elliot, himself stateless, unmoored, and in need of direction, follows.
From these simple plot axioms a marvelous literary calculus follows, one whose beauty would be compromised if I revealed too much here. I will say it is a largely unclassifiable novel, with tidily interlacing features of several genres—hero’s journey, treasure hunt, a search for self, a homecoming. Picaresque, even—it is very tempting to compare Lower Reaches of the River to Don Quixote, imagining Elliot and Adley as marshland counterparts to Sancho Panza and the hidalgo himself. Comparing anything to Don Quixote is dangerous business, however, and we will leave it at the brink of temptation.
Writers who believe in their characters; who trust them—whether that trust is manifested as admiration or contempt, succor or fear, love or loathing—are writers to whom we owe our own trust as readers. Roberto Bolaño believed in Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives; Nadine Gordimer allowed Sonny and Will to follow their damaged hearts in My Son’s Story; José Saramago’s faith in the doctor’s wife in Blindness is unassailable. These great novels work, in part, because their authors trust the characters they have given birth to. Likewise, M. Conway Dorsey trusts the characters that populate the strange and far-flung scapes of Lower Reaches of the River: Elliot, Early Watts, Nolan and Avery Flynn, Wilson, and especially the enigmatic Adley Renaud. Dorsey has fired each character in a kind of narrative crucible, with variable ratios of mercury and sulfur, and trusts the resulting alchemies to interact, to react, and to race in unpredictable Brownian zigzag toward their destinies. There is a kind of authorial innocence in this trust, a confidence in the fictive world. Lower Reaches works as a novel because Dorsey allows his characters to consecrate his trust to their lives.
It also succeeds because of the space the story occupies. Louise Glück once said, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” If we accept her assertion, we must also accept the existence of a dividing line, a border separating the end of childhood from the reliance on the memory of it. Who among us has not recalled an incident from childhood, a static scene, and wondered whether we are remembering the actual event, or if we are in fact recollecting a photograph of it, with its faded emulsion and artificial rectangular border, snapped by some forgotten witness and stuck down in an album? Dorsey tells a story that occupies the slender ground between a world seen and a world remembered; a tale that balances on the edge of this fugitive partition.
From page six, a recollection from Elliot, the narrator:
One of my earliest memories was of the images reflected in the mirrors at the neighborhood barbershop. The mirrors were both behind and in front of the barber chair. Reflections of reflections of reflections endlessly receded into the depths of the mirrors. This trompe l’oeil, or illusion of truth fascinated and enchanted me. While the barber cut my hair, I peered intently into the mirror, looking for the last image, but it was impossible to discern the last one. Was I simply unable to see it? Did it actually go on forever, as it appeared to? This was my first realization of the limits of my senses, the boundary of my ability to know. This uncharted zone just beyond this boundary, the edge of cognizance, at the end of the bridge of knowledge, was a place I wanted to explore. It was where reason left off, where the rules of logic were suspended. It wasn’t a place you could point to on a map, or none that I was aware of. But, I knew someone who lived there.
The author’s trust in his characters, and his faithful exploration of the boundaries of innocence, are the twin engines powering Lower Reaches of the River. It was with a sense of psychic confidence, of literary delectation, and indeed of relief, that I turned back to the opening lines of Dorsey’s lyrical and sublime novel, to read again.
—Bill Cotter, author of Fever Chart, 2009 and The Parallel Apartments, 2014