The River Gods
by Brian Kiteley
Reviewed by Andy Stewart
Brian Kiteley offers a distinctively intimate and haunting collection of narratives in his newest novel, The River Gods. He continues his exploration of the vignette story so unique and notable in his debut novel, Still Life With Insects, but effectively adds a new dimension to what has become an ever ubiquitous and often strained prose form. Kiteley proposes something completely different from his contemporaries in these well-crafted pages: a vignette novel that does not rely upon a tedious modus operandi to organize or thematically unify the collection into a cohesive whole. Instead, in a series of non-chronologic vignettes that span the breadth of almost 1000 years of American (and pre-American) history, The River Gods uses the subtle rhyme and reason of place to provide coherence. As a piece haunted both by place and history, it is place -- the novel's setting -- that connects Kiteley's rogue cast of characters, their histories, and their stories. Northampton, Massachusetts, and specifically the old banks of the Connecticut River, embodies the beating heart of this novel. It is the author's Eden, the fertile crescent, the epicenter for each of the novel's complicated and excruciatingly human characters.
Each brief vignette presents a first-person narrative penned in the style of a journal entry, complete with name, date, and occasionally a short note of subject or instance. The novel's characters reflect different genders, ages, social classes, and populate different moments in our continental history, giving voice to such famous names as Richard Nixon, Sojourner Truth, Calvin Coolidge, Jonathan Edwards, as well as film director Mike Nichols and literary figures William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Kiteley also includes an even longer list of characters hitherto unknown except in the dense annals of history: a soldier dying in the Egyptian desert in the midst of World War II (1942); two young lovers stealing away on a raft on the Connecticut River (1738); Cornet Joseph Parsons, husband to the accused witch, Mary Parsons (1678); and Henrik Rafn, one of the first of the Greenlandic explorers on the continent (1062). Each vignette maintains an unobtrusive authorial tone that runs as an undercurrent throughout each narrative, yet Kiteley manages to breathe a very distinct life and voice into each and every one of these first-person voices.
Time and death are not barriers for Kiteley's bevy of historical characters. They write about their lives with the relative objectivity of an autobiographical obituary. And it is here that Kiteley's mastery of storytelling best reveals itself. The writing in each vignette is both familiar and unique to the personality and time of the character. So convincing and organic are these confessional perspectives that one cannot help but wonder if these historical figures have possessed the author and hijacked his pen hand. Or perhaps it is Kiteley's uncanny ability to inhabit a different time, a different perspective, a different mental landscape -- to take himself out of himself -- that enables him to tell such stories. Whatever the method, Kiteley encompasses a rare and powerful brand of storytelling that provides the reader with a window into the quiet souls of his characters.
Another key element of The River Gods is that it presents a mystery in its very form and loose organization -- not one to be untangled via an unfolding plot, but a mystery of personal lineage, ancestry, and geography that gets revealed through self-examination and reflection. Kiteley truly puts something of himself in this novel. He invokes the voices of his family members as characters: his mother, Jean; his father, Murray; his grandfather, Eric, who is always armed with bug-collecting nets; his brother, Geoffrey, who is dying of AIDS. Kiteley even includes his own personal narrative from different points in his childhood and young adulthood. Self-examination happens via reenactment, through the rehashing of pivotal moments and memories in Kiteley's and his family's lives.
The River Gods poses a question that good literature often does: Where do I come from? Kiteley tries on several different hats in an attempt to answer this question, and to understand the history of the place in which he was raised. This sort of examination culminates in an irresistible and stunning piece of thought-provoking fiction. In his storytelling, he makes myths of them all -- presidents, murderers, passers by, brothers, grandfathers -- and, in the mythmaking, he imparts a deep respect. All characters exist as equals on the same lofty tier in this novel. They are, all of them, River Gods.