Taylor Brown’s new book “The River of Kings” opens just outside of modern day Jesup as two brothers drop their kayaks into the Altamaha River at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Lawton Loggins, the eldest, is a career Navy man drawn home by the death of his father but haunted by the things he has seen and done overseas. Hunter Loggins, a student at Georgia Southern, is unsure of his path after college, or what he’ll do with the history major he’s planning to acquire. Both men are sharp, strong and formidable, just like the river they cruise upon, as their journey takes them 100 miles toward the Atlantic Ocean, past cypress swamps and bottomlands thick with hardwoods.
In a waterproof bag on one of the kayaks is what remains of their father, Hiram Loggins, a shrimper chronically hit with a streak of bad luck and plagued by poor decision making. Hiram’s Shakespeare-quoting, whiskey-drinking sons believe their father died under mysterious circumstances, and they set off on the river to solve the mystery of his death. The river has changed in the years that Hiram’s sons have been away, and it may hide a secret to what got the elder Loggins in trouble. As they make their way down river to spread their father’s ashes, the brothers search for answers and interact with river dwellers like their father’s enigmatic childhood friend Uncle King.
The sons dredge up other things as they make their way to the ocean, too, stories of people lost on the river and women raped to death, remembered in remnants of old Civil War ghost stories handed down from fathers to sons.
But the Loggins brothers aren’t the only ones traveling down the river in the Georgia-born author’s second novel. Brown weaves into their tale the story of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgue, a French artist commissioned by the king of France to accompany a group of French explorers down the river to map the coastline and waterways, and to catalog the plants and animals that live there.
Le Moyne is part of the expedition group that will build a fortified outpost called Fort Caroline. Erected in 1564, it is believed to be the oldest settlement in North America, founded some 61 years before Jamestown. Le Moyne’s perspective on this New World is of a “savage Eden” filled with mythical creatures positioned beside an unpredictable river rumored to be filled with monsters. The greatest of all of these is Altamaha-ha, a giant snakelike creature that bellows and hisses, some prehistoric beast that lurks in the depths of a dark and sinister waterway.
Le Moyne’s job is to simply record what he sees, and in doing so he exposes the lies the French expedition peddles to the natives, and the perceived betrayal by that party when they find out the truth. Le Moyne writes of watching his colleagues tell warring tribes fabricated tales about natives they never killed and there are depictions of the explorers partaking in feasts they didn’t earn. This chafing point may be their undoing. Throughout his journey, Le Moyne’s obsession with Altamaha-ha grows as he believes he occasionally catches glimpses of it on his voyage.
The mythical creature is on the minds of Hunter and Lawson, too, as they paddle toward the sea. Altamaha-ha, known as Altie for short, is a killer sturgeon with reptilian flesh, Georgia’s version of the Loch Ness monster, and it is believed to have killed Hiram Loggins. Altamaha-ha is the boogeyman of “The River of Kings,” the scapegoat for everything questionable that happens in the story. Rumors about him and myriad of unusual happenings on the river are framed as whispers on the wind, snatches of story swirling by the characters.
“The River of Kings” is a sprawling, ambitious follow up to Brown’s first novel, the lyrical, historically based “Fallen Land,” with mixed results.
Brown’s genuine interest in regional history is evident and those passages are meticulous and elegantly crafted. The language and rhythm of the sentences force the reader to enter Brown’s current and abandon the usual literary trail markers: “[t]he brothers round bend and the Rayonier pulp mill rises smoking on the bank, a towering industrial fortress of silos and catwalks and smokestacks whose upper rims blink all hours to warn away low-flying aircraft. Long convoys of logging trucks deliver forty-ton quivers of slash pine day and night, the arrow-straight trees chipped and fed into steel digesters the size of space rockets.”
The narrative is scorchingly vivid when Brown finds his rhythm, and as the stories converge and tumble toward resolution, his ability to thrill is ever present, and the mastery of craft that made his first novel so compelling comes flooding back, dousing the reader in tension.
But it takes 80 pages in before Brown finds his cadence, before the reader is easily gliding down the river with the Loggins boys, trying to solve the mystery, unperturbed by the 500-year time travel that happens every couple of chapters: “He sees the worm of scar crossing the heart-line of the man’s palm. Hiram touches his own matching scar, brought back to the boyhood day they drew the shoddy lockblade across their hands, holding them clasped like arm-wrestlers until their blood fully mixed. He thinks back to what came before, the secret they meant to seal in the meat of their palms, the hurt they sank to the river’s bottom.”
The Loggins family inhabits the world of wrecked, rusty ships, 60-pound catfish and the one that got away. Their world, unfolding 500 years after Le Moyne’s, is filled with its own lore, and one thing is consistent in both tales: the men all focus on the unknown, unable to let go of the mysteries and changes in the river. Only some of the characters survive to tell the tale.
‘The River of Kings: A Novel’
By Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Press
$26, 336 pages