Bookshelf: ‘Riverman’ chronicles the life of an American original

Author Ben McGrath

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Author Ben McGrath

Missing canoeist prompts author Ben McGrath’s inquiry into what made Dick Conant tick.

I began reading Ben McGrath’s “Riverman: An American Odyssey” (Knopf, $29) expecting to be immersed in a bit of nature writing. I imagined something like Janisse Ray’s “Drifting into Darien” about the Altamaha River.

I was only partially correct. “Riverman” is about nature, all right — human nature. Specifically, the curious nature of Dick Conant, an enigmatic man more at home paddling down a river and camping on riverbanks than on terra firma.

Author Ben McGrath, a staff writer for the New Yorker, first encountered Conant at a neighbor’s birthday party on the Hudson River in Piermont, New York, in 2014. Conant was paddling from Canada to Florida in a red plastic canoe stuffed with supplies and had just met McGrath’s neighbor that day in a chance encounter.

Dressed in faded overalls, muddy boots and sporting a red beard, Conant regaled dinner guests with his tales of adventures traversing the country’s waterways. He made such an impression that McGrath wrote a short piece about him for the New Yorker.

Three months later, McGrath received a phone call from a wildlife ranger in North Carolina. His contact information had been found in a red canoe discovered overturned in the Albemarle Sound; its occupant was missing

“Riverman” is an account of McGrath’s investigation into what happened to Conant. But more than that, it is an inquiry into who Conant was, and how he made such a huge impact on so many people’s lives. The information McGrath gleans by spending time in the river towns Conant visited, meeting the people he encountered on his journeys and reading his journals and manuscripts adds up to a compelling portrait of a complex man who went to extraordinary lengths to figure out a way to live in a world not made for him.

On paper Conant was an adventurer, a painter, a writer. He had been a pre-med student and a quartermaster for the Navy. He was an incorrigible romantic. If you asked him, he said he was a “canoeist who writes books.” He’d penned three manuscripts detailing his journeys, totaling more than 2,000 pages.

But part of McGrath’s challenge capturing Conant’s character on the page is the fact that he was different things to different people.

To Conant’s brothers, who hadn’t seen him since 2008, he was a teller of tall tales, full of hot air and grandiose delusions. To the librarians in Bozeman, Montana, where he lived in a tent in the woods when he wasn’t on the water, he was a sad case, a lost cause and a nuisance. To faculty members at Montana State where he worked briefly as a “weather watcher,” he was to be feared and a possible “lone gunman” type. To medical personnel, he required medication to temper his paranoia.

But the people Conant met on his journeys were filled with admiration for him, like McGrath’s neighbor who invited him to his birthday party. Or the lawyer he met in Slidell, Louisiana, who bought him a plane ticket home from Virginia. Or the NASA programmer who transported him and his canoe over the mountains in Tennessee. Or the college professor in Brainerd, Minnesota, who was so taken by him, she made him the subject of a case study for her community journalism class. “How could a stranger have such an effect on me?” she asked McGrath with tears in her eyes.

The fact is, Conant’s disheveled looks belied an erudite mind. He excelled in school, and the journals he meticulously kept of his travels included references to Mary Cassatt paintings, visits to the Paul Robeson Museum and Ben Franklin’s grave, a lecture he attended on justice during the American Revolution. Despite his solitary nature, he was sociable and gregarious. He could speak on any topic. People were drawn to him.

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Courtesy Knopf

Credit: Knopf

Courtesy Knopf

Credit: Knopf

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Courtesy Knopf

Credit: Knopf

Credit: Knopf

Reading McGrath’s account of Conant, it becomes apparent that many of the people he encountered projected their own fears or fantasies upon him. To some he was a homeless vagrant, a threat to safety, someone to be avoided. To others he was a modern-day folk hero, an inspiration, the embodiment of the rugged individualist who sheds society’s shackles and depends upon his own wits to survive.

In some ways I, too, relate to Dick Conant. In reading “Riverman,” I discovered that we share two basic philosophies in life. One is “to see as much geography as possible.” The other is to place greater value on creating memories than amassing material things. Am I willing to chuck the good life and live a peripatetic existence dependent solely upon my wits? Uh, no. But I admire his commitment, while at the same time, my heart breaks for him. I get the sense that his lifestyle wasn’t necessarily a choice, but was the only way he could exist in the world.

Despite his challenges and hardships, Conant knew moments of joy and maintained faith in the future, which is all any of us can really hope for in the end.

“The peace of mind I found, largely alone, on that white-water mecca convinced me that life was capable of exquisite pleasure and undefined meaning deep in the face of failure,” he wrote. “The experience itself is the reward.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com, and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.