Jul/Aug 2019 Reviews & Interviews

The Current

The Current.
Tim Johnston.
Algonquin Books. 2019. 416 pp.
ISBN 978-1616206772.

Review by PD Mallamo

Buy now from Amazon! Transcendental resonance in fiction depicting savage crime and explosive aftermath is not standard American fare, and this is probably a good thing, at least from the standpoint of readability—but married well, in the hands of a gifted writer deeply versed in these disparate faiths, this unusual pairing can produce artless art unlike anything in either crime or literary genres.

Tim Johnston draws his mythical simple/strange Iowa with a kind of long-view immediacy, understanding in a way most writers do not that in fiction, as life, the most interesting, if not common, resolutions are the almost invisible and all-but-unknown ones. In the naively confident positivism of our 21st Century we think we know better than to disbelieve an ultimately unbelievable scientific legend of simple arithmetic progression from self-replicating molecule to miraculous sentience—but Johnston seems to disagree, and he does so quietly with great confidence in this intricate tale of two murders connected across years by unseen bonds. There is a calculated inevitability in his deceptively simple and sedate prose, manifest propulsion towards full disclosure of secrets that is more riveting than ambushes or car chases or intrigue. Straightforward descriptions are not straightforward, but obliquely illuminate filaments of causality and the certain emergence of fact. Johnston takes simple things and reveals their density and complexity in the most sensuous meta-metaphors:

"Meltwater ran across the roads in streams and hissed under the tires and you could put the window down and smell the earth and you know the winter wasn't forever after all and the land would be green again, the river would flow again, and from the bridges you could see the slabs of ice jutting into the air, and if you pulled over and stood on the bank you could see the slabs moving and grinding against each other like icebergs, like ships, all in a tight puzzle-work of pieces and all of it moving together foot by foot downriver, cracking and popping and grinding as the river below swelled with the thaw and pushed and surged and would not be stopped."

In his essay "The Over-Soul" Emerson writes, "The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence. The most exact calculator has no prescience that somewhat incalculable may not balk the very next moment. I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine... As with events, so is it with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come."

Water as transcendental leitmotif is an American constant, most famously in Walden and more recently in John Graves' Goodbye to a River. Water is life, particularly moving water, at once permanent as an element and transient as a dream. In Johnston's hands it achieves the status of character, drawn as fully and richly as people:

...and you could see everything under the water, every bubble and every rippling eel of color where the moonlight came through the ice and lit up the underworld, the shape of your own fingers where they slid along the underside of the ice, and there's the slippery and wavering moon following along with you, gliding along on the other side like a bright eye that only wants to keep you in its sight, wants only to light your way as you go, and the journey will be long but you are not alone—the girls of the river are here as they were before, girls of pale arms and long yellow hair...

This is Johnston's third novel; the second, Descent, a New York Times Bestseller, roared along like a freight train to its tumultuous end. The Current, though quieter, almost a meditation, is somehow even more inexorable. He understands the poetry in simple conversations among uncomplicated people, and strips even these down to reveal their essence and provide clues, most importantly of their deepest relationships and their complex and often dark take on hidden worlds of not-quite-random happenstance, and their grace, strength and resolve when things do not go their way.

Johnston's craftsmanship is meticulous, but at the same time seems absolutely unforced; there are passages in this book that read as if channeled rather than written—metaphor, once again, of that flowing river. The Current is a book of quiet drama and great beauty, one that, like Descent before it, will stand the test of time. Happily, it is a page-turner one does not feel guilty enjoying.


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