Review | ‘Raft of Stars’ takes a cue from Hemingway, then puts a less macho spin on the adventure tale

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Outdoorsy tales like this, from Hemingway’s early Michigan tales to James Dickey’s “Deliverance” on down, sometimes use woods and waterways as proving grounds for masculinity. However Graff, a Wisconsin native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, needs to unravel a number of the expectations of the style. Nature, right here, isn’t impressed with masculinity in any respect, and it’s ready to smash machismo towards its rocks together with the rest.

Earlier than it delves into any of that, although, “Raft of Stars” comes on like an up to date Huck Finn story. Two 10-year-old boys, Fischer Branson and Dale Breadwin, head to the river from the hamlet of Claypot after Fischer shoots Dale’s abusive, alcoholic father. Frightened of what the police will do to them — particularly Dale, who’s now orphaned — they plan to go to the Nationwide Guard armory the place Fischer says his dad is stationed.

Fischer is dodging not only a potential homicide cost, however his previous: Unbeknown to Dale, Fischer’s father was killed in motion after Operation Desert Storm. (The novel is ready in 1994 — largely, it appears, so not one of the characters can simply talk with cellphones.) And Dale is keen to ditch his personal historical past: “Breadwin was a reputation everybody knew in Claypot. It was synonymous with low-cost auto work and the worst sort of man.”

Fischer and Dale are nicknamed Fish and Bread — Graff couldn’t make the boys’ earthiness any clearer if “Raft of Stars” got here packaged with a clod of river mud. However the boys are nonetheless boys, amateurishly liable to silly notions of survival. Quick on meals, they concoct a stew of worms and chewing tobacco, which works down in addition to you’d anticipate.

Right here’s the place the actual males normally step in. However chasing them from one route are Cal, a sheriff not too long ago from Houston and inept within the Midwestern wilderness; and Teddy, Fish’s grandfather, an skilled outdoorsman who’s slowed by age. In time, Cal loses a boot and his weapon, lowered to sputtering at his horse, inept as Barney Fife: “Effectively, life ain’t that easy, Mr. Horse! No it ain’t! As a result of life don’t depart a person alone!”

Chasing the boys from one other route, and considerably extra competently, are Fish’s mother, Miranda, and Tiffany, a younger down-at-heel gas-station clerk who’s a romantic curiosity for Cal — till Graff begins tweaking that acquainted expectation as nicely. The 2 pairs each undergo embarrassments and humiliations on the journey, however the general impact is that of boys’ story with out being a stubbornly manly one. Fathers are absent from the story — serving solely as symbols of unhealthy information.

And although “Stars” isn’t an outright tragedy, there’s little in the best way that feels triumphant. Largely what the woods and river do are flatten our humanity into pure survival mode. Fish is especially attuned to its tough justice: “The entire world was hungry, and the entire world was fed,” he observes at one level. Later, after witnessing a melee between a bear and pack of coyotes, he notes, “This world was all incorrect, the best way all the pieces needed to eat one another.”

That places Graff consistent with some current novels which have upended our expectations of journey tales: Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling” (2017), put an intrepid 14-year-old lady entrance and middle, and Erica Ferencik’s novels have featured feminine ensembles on the rapids (2017’s “The River at Night time”) or the tropical wilderness (2019’s “Into the Jungle”). We wish all the terror that comes with being left to our personal units; it’s simply {that a} macho hero needn’t be on the middle of it.

Graff writes exquisitely in regards to the wilderness, each its risks and the best way its freedoms enchant the novel’s two prepubescent leads — the enjoyment they discover in constructing a raft and escaping seize is palpable. And although he’s taking part in with the style, he preserves a number of old-hat parts of it. There’s a hokey down-home humor of Cal sputtering at his horse, and his hapless deputy. Tiffany and Miranda go on a fact-finding mission that’s ripped clear from a sitcom plot. And a late-breaking twist arrives to bolster the slaying-the-father theme, which makes it no much less incredulous.

In the end, although, Graff acknowledges that his fundamental job is to ship a gripping journey story, which the concluding chapters supply loads of — harmful rapids resulting in life-threatening waterfalls, menacing black bears and coyotes. To say who walks away and who doesn’t would spoil the story, however Graff closes with a foreboding temper that, in the long term, man is all the time the loser in any man vs. nature story. “The darkness had come too shut. It had include a lot drive. … And the darkness would come for them once more,” he intones. Untamed nature is unhealthy information for humanity usually. However it’s all the time excellent news for journey tales.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and writer of “The New Midwest.”

Raft of Stars


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