Troubled waters run deep in Michael Farris Smith’s raging ‘Rivers’

Maybe you’ve noticed that this has been a summer of broken rainfall records.

Monthly precipitation totals have topped 20 inches (300 percent of norms) in areas from the Carolinas to Florida, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center. In Georgia, the Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up the outflow at lakes Hartwell, Thurmond and Russell, bracing for floods.

In the midst of the real-life deluge surfaces a triumphant — and troubling — debut novel about Southern states in the near future punished by relentless rain and flooding. Michael Farris Smith’s powerful “Rivers” is the kind of book that lifts you up with its mesmerizing language then pulls you under like a riptide.

“It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months,” the novel begins. We quickly learn that shifting weather patterns in the Gulf Coast have forced the federal government to abandon everything south of The Line, a boundary cutting from Texas to Alabama. The scattered holdouts in this soggy no-man’s land include starving vagrants, treasure-hunting hoodlums and Cohen, a despondent survivalist holed up in his modest home near Biloxi, Miss.

Three years have passed since Cohen’s pregnant wife was killed during a mandatory evacuation. He spends day after rainy day screaming into the winds and grieving, accompanied by a nameless dog and a stray horse. Cohen’s self-inflicted water torture becomes impossible to sustain after he’s robbed and left for dead on a flooded roadway.

In prose as relentless and pitiless as the storms it describes, “Rivers” carries Cohen from one quagmire to the next. It’s not surprising that early reviews have name-dropped Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” another severe dystopian novel written with a distinctive ear for voice. Like McCarthy, Smith knows his way around a run-on sentence. One chilling sequence finds Cohen riding out a hurricane in an abandoned gas station: “The dog jumped up on his chest and he hugged the dog as the roof of the station came off and everything not hammered down and even some things that were began to fly away and the rain whipped. He curled himself up as tightly as a skeleton could curl and he held the saddle on top of his head as the wind tried to take them away and he and the dog held on to each other and Cohen called out to Elisa and he called out to God though there was nothing to do but take it.”

Both novels set everyman protagonists adrift in ruined American wastelands, fending off hordes of vicious scavengers. Cohen’s defiant isolation ends when he joins a ragtag group of refugees. Unlike “The Road,” “Rivers” changes its point of view often, splitting chapters among several characters including Mariposa, a conflicted teenager from New Orleans, and the evil Aggie, a snake-handling preacher with a caravan of concubines.

In scenes reminiscent of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Cohen reluctantly shepherds a pitiful crew of castaways (including an infant and a pregnant woman) north to The Line before the next monster storm strikes. “Rivers” then changes currents again. Reverting to McCarthy mode, a white-knuckled climax brings to mind the search for the satchel of cash in “No Country for Old Men.”

Along the way, Smith manages to scare up a man-eating panther, a terrifying infestation of rats and an apparition of the deceased wife — gothic flotsam that nudges the novel toward horror territory. Such plot devices might read as ridiculous if attempted by a less assured writer. Luckily, Smith’s sure-footed storytelling rarely stumbles. The uncanny overtones complement a not-so-subtle motif of Biblical retribution. “Rivers” mentions Noah and the Old Testament flood sparingly, but there’s a sense throughout the book that the characters (and perhaps the entire country) are being punished for ill-defined sins. In most every chapter, unremitting storms batter the bones of modern American architecture: flimsy convenience stores, burned-out casinos, strip-malls left empty not by looters but by cautious corporations.

Smith, a native Mississippian who previously lived in France and Switzerland, interrupts the forward thrust of his well-crafted novel with a clumsy series of flashbacks to Cohen’s Italian honeymoon. The dewy-eyed scenes in Venice, another sinking city, tend to bog down the action. Smith can’t resist interjecting a heavy-handed plot synopsis of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” spoon-feeding themes of loneliness and self-sacrifice to a readership already expecting better from such a sly, intelligent author.

With a timely, ripped-from-the-Weather-Channel premise and an ending calculated to unleash the waterworks, “Rivers” may sound like a cynical novel, or a preachy one. It’s neither. Smith displays no interest in proselytizing about climate change. Nor does he have to.

In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy (not to mention this summer’s weather weirdness), and with meteorologists issuing doomsday scenarios about the fate of coastal cities, “Rivers” succeeds as both a stunning work of speculative fiction and a grim forecast of a coming national catastrophe.

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