Hardcover (also available in eBook and audio formats), 1982601086, 221 pgs., $27.99
June 8, 2021
“And how do you keep going, when something so meaningful is taken from you? How do you move forward? How do you move at all?”
The imagery of water is significant in literary fiction because it can cleanse impurities or churn up muddy choices and regrets, but too much water can rot the earth and hide the residue of sin.
In River, Sing Out by James Wade, Jonah Hargrove is almost thirteen and lives with his deadbeat father in a rundown trailer near the Neches River in East Texas. Life for Jonah is filled with scant food, loneliness, and a violent father who disappears for weeks at a time, either working on an oil rig or gambling. School is out for the summer, and Jonah’s only companions are a doe and her fawn and old Mr. Carson, who lives nearby along the river. When a girl addicted to meth and toting a stolen backpack full of drugs stumbles into the picture, life for Jonah becomes more interesting and so much more complicated. This girl, who tells Jonah to call her River, ran away from home years ago and is now on the run from John Curtis, a drug lord and addict with incredible hubris and a seemingly strong influence with local authorities and a drug cartel. For his own personal reasons, John Curtis wants this girl found, no matter the cost.
River, Sing Out is a literary work of art, with exceptional characterization and philosophical prose guiding the story along the banks of the Neches. Heavy drug use, violence, and unsavory behavior and language permeate this modern-day plot that often feels ancient or timeless as it inhabits the swampy bottoms of East Texas that only seem to change at the whim of nature.
Substantial Christian allegory smooths the rough edges of drug use and evil in River, Sing Out. Christian references, however, sometimes come across as mocking and almost blasphemous, especially when some characters scoff or question God’s existence in a brutal world that pushes the desperate toward drugs, which only end up chipping away at the body and the soul. With the relentless rainfall, however, the story quickly becomes reminiscent of the biblical cosmology of God cleansing the world of corruption through flooding rains. Jonah and his new friend, River, are caught up in the rain and floodwaters of the Neches and in their hardscrabble escape as they navigate their unique relationship with each other; with nature; and with John Curtis and his muscle, Cade, nipping at their heels.
James Wade’s writing is rhapsodic, mimicking the title of the book and the constant love song between God and nature and God and humans. River, Sing Out has no true beginning or ending, providing an abrasive snapshot of bad choices, wrong turns, and destruction juxtaposed with redemption through honest friendship and devotion. As the world devolves into malevolence, water washes away at least some of the iniquity, and a broken boy faces his new world with maturity and dignity.
River, Sing Out has many caustic characters and dastardly deeds, but a ray of hope does float to the top because the story offers a few moments of true euphoria and light amidst the disheartening reality of poverty and addiction. This novel will not disappoint readers looking for thought-provoking fiction about love and affection conquering the mud and debauchery of life, even if for a little while.
“When it comes to the way the world turns, we ought not be allowed to claim ignorance as an alibi.”
James Wade is a Spur Award and Reading the West Award-Winning author living and writing in the Texas Hill Country.