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The River Warren: A Novel

The River Warren: A Novel

by Kent Meyers, Wendy Holdman (Designed by)

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One early spring morning Two-Speed Crandall, with his wife at his side and a semitrailer full of cattle, drives through the middle of Cloten, plowing into the hardware store and killing himself, his wife, and most of the cattle. Was it an accident or suicide? No one will ever know, but a few people, including the town doctor and Two-Speed's son, have their


One early spring morning Two-Speed Crandall, with his wife at his side and a semitrailer full of cattle, drives through the middle of Cloten, plowing into the hardware store and killing himself, his wife, and most of the cattle. Was it an accident or suicide? No one will ever know, but a few people, including the town doctor and Two-Speed's son, have their theories. Gossip, half-truths, and painful memories are unleashed as the town tries to understand the tragedy as well as untangle their intertwined pasts. In voices as rich as the muddy river that runs through Cloten, each narrator shares what they know-always circling closer to the mystery that ties them all together. Moving back and forth through time, The River Warren creates an unforgettable sense of place and community, and introduces a remarkable new voice in American fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"As stunning in its use of language as it is touching in its human revelations, The River Warren is an impressive debut."-The Denver Post
"Somewhere between the weight of Faulkner and the ease of Kesey, Kent Meyers brings to American fiction a tenaciously gripping story that moves with the subtle subterfuge of an aging river current."-ForeWord
Howard Frank Mosher
Entertaining and brilliantly written first novel....As stunning in its use of language as it is touching in its human revelations, The River Warren is an impressive debut from a writer entirely at home in what may still be America's greatest single resource-its magnificent, if embattled, unspoiled rural landscape.
Denver Post
ForeWord Magazine
Somewhere between the weight of Faulkner and the ease of Kesey, Kent Meyers brings to American fiction a tenaciously gripping story that moves with the subtle subterfuge of an aging river current.... The River Warren is a seductive and dark tale that closes with a welcome sense of light and fulfillment.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A bizarre and perhaps malicious incident in a small Midwestern farm town is the focal point of this skillful and sensitive first novel. When Two-Speed Crandall careens down a hill and crashes a semi-trailer loaded with Leo Gruber's cattle into the bank, the barbershop and the hardware store, he kills himself and his wife, who was in the passenger seat. The townspeople are suspicious: was the accident suicide and/or Two-Speed's way of punishing his wife, who was finally ready to leave him? Like the river that runs through the town and that serves as a metaphor for time and memory, the nine characters who narrate this novel determine its shape and direction. Ably differentiating their voices, Meyers presents various versions of the events that led up to the accident. The narrators include a bystander who witnesses the wild ride, the town doctor, a wise old fisherman and six other players in the drama, chief among them Crandall's son, Luke, and Gruber's son, Jeff, who are friends even though their fathers barely tolerated each other. Through the interweaving of secrets and memories, we come to the closest possible understanding of why the crash happened. Along the way, the relationship of Luke and Jeff assumes its own importance. While the frequent switches in point of view are a bit frustrating until readers have a larger sense of the story, there is a cumulative rise in tension as the background becomes clear. Meyers's best accomplishment here may be the devastatingly beautiful passages on the death of Jeff's younger brother, Chris, from the viewpoints of Jeff and his mother. Here Meyers hones his sometimes fevered prose and achieves a simplicity of expression that conveys the arc of grief and acceptance. Editor, Dallas Crow. (Sept.) FYI: A collection of Meyers's essays, The Witness of Combines, is coming in September from the U. of Minnesota Press.
Library Journal
When Two-Speed Crandall, the local mean drunk, crashes his semi into several downtown buildings, killing himself, his wife, who was also in the cab, and a load of cattle, the small Dakota town fixates on the incident. Meyers's cliched use of chapters narrated in the voices of various characters, including a retarded man, as they react to the incident, seriously flaws this part of the novel. Whether it was really a murder-suicide or an accident is never explained, nor is the town's fascination with Two-Speed. A more promising plot line is the longtime friendship between Two-Speed's son Luke and Jeff Gruber, whose father's cattle were in the truck. The novel feels like a set of short stories in its disconnectedness. Still, there are some real gems here, including the dreamlike sequence in which a sportsman experiences the river returning to its powerful postglacial state and Jeff's recalling the helpless horror of witnessing a farm accident in the middle of nowhere. Meyers' real skill is in conveying the subtleties and stoicism of farm life, compared to which the truck accident seems like a senseless flamboyance. -- Reba Leiding, James Madison University Library, Harrisonburg, Virginia
James Polk
. . .[T]he novel's central point [is that] people are afraid of what they can't understand, and even a man as totally without substance as Two-Speed Crandall can dominate . . .thoughts. . .fears. . . .He dominates, in fact, precisely because he is so empty. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Debut literary novel by a South Dakotan teacher.The River Warren resists description. The river of the title no longer exists, but once surged as a vast tributary of an incredible mile-high glacier that covered much of the Dakotas and Canada and left a lake that makes Superior look like a puddle. With a sort of poetic justice, the community of Cloten, South Dakota, draws on its own vast night-river of gossip, half-truths, and memories in order to fathom the quite unbelievable murder/suicide enacted by Two-Speed Crandall. Crandall, easily Cloten's most outstanding eccentric, has promised his wife, LouAnn, that he'll perform an act never to be forgotten by the town. So Two-Speed cranks up his semitrailer, which is loaded to the siderails with Leo Gruber's cattle, starts accelerating downhill (having deliberately ruined his brakes, to insure disaster to come), with his wife beside him praying that he stop, and roars at top speed straight into Cloten's downtown, demolishing several cars, the hardware store, the bank, and the barber shop before coming to a halt in Angel Finn's, both dead, and with most of Gruber's cattle dead as well. Analyzing this freighted event requires interior monologues from about ten townsfolk, including Two-Speed's brilliant but disaffected son, Luke, whose best friend, Jeff Gruber, is in love with Luke's pregnant wife, Ellen. Did the horror have something to do with nine-year-old Chris Gruber's demise when a tractor fell over on him? Or did Two-Speed have a bizarre sexual guilt that focused on retarded Pop Bottle Pete, whose stream-of-consciousness mimics the idiot Benjy's in The Sound and the Fury? A muddy, turbulent tale filled nonetheless withstrong moments and singing sparks, especially about farming on buried glacial rock.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Harvest Edition
Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Angel Finn

On the night river, everything seems far away, so far away it's come back around to being close, and a man can need nothing and want everything, and wonder what his life's all about at the same time that he knows. You can't see your line in the dark. It's all sound and feel, and I swear there've been times I smelled a strike coming before it came, a bigfish smell rising up to the water's surface from down in the real dark. Sometimes a baitfish'll go frantic before a strike, trying to swim away from the mouth opening behind it, hooked through the back and dangling in the current, and still something else kicks in when a big blue or channel cat comes gliding up out've the murk.

    You got to start with the river, with its drop and slope and attention to gravity, and with the land out here that it drains. You got to start, far as I'm concerned, with the river's heart in the big freeze and thaw, and how time piles up on the land, and how sometimes you'll see it all there, nothing lost, shining through the moment. A man drives a semiload of cattle downhill and crashes through town and wrecks things and kills himself and his wife and the cattle, most people'll start with that. But I'm thinking it's surely funny how stories run backwards and how there's nothing like a death for starting them. No story in this town ever followed time well.

    I'd come off the river that morning, and the town was as quiet as it's ever been. I parked the boat and went in to sleep, the sun barely thinning the dark in the east, and the next thing I know my neighbor'd walked right into the house and was standing over me and shaking me because I wouldn't answer his pounding on my door. I followed him downtown and couldn't believe what I saw. Leo Gruber was working within the sounds of the dying cattle, winching them off the truck, wordless and steady, the only person there who seemed to know what he was doing, everyone else standing around or just following orders. I did some repairs to the store, then couldn't see sense in listening to everyone guess at what'd happened, so I went back to the river.

    Course if stories in this town don't follow time too well, maybe that's because time doesn't follow itself too well. It's like the river, with its back currents and side channels and backwashes, and its floodings when it doesn't know its own banks and has to rise up over them to take a look around and sort of remember what it once was. Talk's the same way. It loops and circles, gathers and runs, flows into something bigger than it knows, everyone pouring his own little stream in, till you can't tell if there's a beginning or an ending, or if you're in the main channel or a backwash or've gone over the banks with the flood.

    The talk goes around and around about Two-Speed Crandall, but the talk's all about something else, like a whirlpool still in its center and everything going around it. It's like Two-Speed, now that he's dead, and dead's about as still as you can get, he's drawn other stories to him, and they're all whirling around, and people're trying to see it all. There're two ways to look at a whirlpool. You can watch the whole thing, and it'll go smooth and won't seem to be moving at all, just standing there, a hole in the surface of the water. The other, you can watch one point go around, and you'll see the movement then, but you can't see the whole whirl. Apply that to Two-Speed Crandall and take it for what it's worth, which maybe isn't much, and you've got what's going on in this town.

    You can look down the river at night and see the moonlight or starlight on the surface, and that surface can look hard and solid, and you can think that's the whole river, just what meets your eyes. Sometimes, even, just for the fun of deceiving myself, I'll think it, that the moment I'm seeing is everything, and the river's got no depth or current or creatures or snags or old, invisible waters.

    Course it ain't true, any more'n it's true that all the stories going around this town are about Two-Speed Crandall. Why he hit my store I surely don't know. Maybe it was an accident, maybe not. It's easy to say it was, and maybe that's the best reason to believe it, but I've never yet met anyone who wanted to stay with the easy thing once he got started talking. Two-Speed was acting strange the last time I saw him, and I've heard he and Leo Gruber never got along, so you've got to wonder about Gruber's cattle being on the truck, though I don't know what it was made the bad blood between them.

    Truth is, I know the sons better'n the fathers. The first time I saw Luke Crandall and Jeff Gruber down on the river together I thought it was an odd thing: Luke a skinny kid, a year younger than Jeff, looking about as substantial as a spiderweb next to Jeff, and with a kind of hot, surprised look on his face most of the time, like he didn't know what to expect of the world but he was determined it wouldn't be good, and then Jeff Gruber, solid and square as a cutbank when you come around a bend, and always looking like he knew what he was about.

    But there they were, down on the river together, jabbering like old friends, and I took a liking to them and started to teaching them things, and I never figured it was my business, even if I was curious, how they came to be friends when their fathers had such a reputation for not getting along. They had the kind of interest in the river they ought to've had, weren't down there just to drink and screw around, and that was enough for me, enough to take them fishing and show them what the river was and tell them what it'd been and still is in the right chances, when it lies on the land its old self, nothing ever disappearing, just falling into a different kind of seeing.

    Anyway, you can look at Two-Speed Crandall all you want and figure what happened and guess and conjecture, you can be like Skeet Olson thinking the truth is in the events, and you can tell it over and over, thinking that if you just tell what actually happened enough times you'll get somewhere--but that's just looking at the surface of the river and thinking you're seeing the whole thing, forgetting it has a shape and form from way back.

    Talk often enough starts with the end of something, then circles around and finds itself, until people're satisfied and settle down. But if you're going to start at the start, you'd have to go clear back to who knows where? To why things freeze and thaw, including the heart sometimes, and why it sometimes won't thaw. People don't know half themselves. That's why I go fishing. I know I don't know myself on the river, but I swear that it knows me. And sometimes it'll let you in, and then you'll realize how big and old it is, and how long water can flow.

    It happened to me once. Since then I've been less worried about beginnings and endings, more kind of thinking there isn't much difference. I wouldn't start with Two-Speed at all. I'd go as far back as you care to go, to the ways people know or don't know the deepest waters, and do my guessing from there.

Skeet Olson

I'm the only one actually seen it. Since they reamed out my veins I been walking every morning. I go out of my house down to Main Street, then head south out of town up the hill to the section road, then west a mile, north a mile, east a mile back. I was at the curve on Highway 4 where it becomes Main Street when I heard the grunt of diesel above the hill. I looked up and could see smoke, a big thinning cloud growing into two black lines as they reached the edge of the hill.

    You've seen how a semi looks coming over a hill. Like it's coming out of the earth, some chrome and smoky bug emerging. There it was then, flat and big, the sun all of a sudden whambright on the windshield. And I stopped walking. He came over the hill, and the diesel smoke kept right on pouring out of the stacks. Kept right on pouring. I stood there and thought, What the hell? What the hell? It was one of those things where you can't even name what's wrong, but your whole body knows it is. I didn't put it together like two plus two equals four, but more like the answer came first, four equals two plus two, except that the answer didn't make any sense, and the equation could have been a lot of other things, like three plus one, or two and thirteen-sixteenths plus whatever. New corn was growing in the fields, and a meadowlark sang on a fence post, and that diesel smoke went straight up into the sky, and I knew what was going to happen before I quite had the reasons I knew why.

    "Jesus," I said. "He's not slowing down."

    I stood on the curve, halfway up the hill, on the shoulder of the road, and watched. The sound of the engine came down at me like it was hard and heavy enough to knock me off the road.

    It grew bigger and bigger, the cab red, the chrome stabbing me with sunlight. Coming down, coming down. Then over the sound of the engine I heard what if you go to hell and hear ghosts you'll hear, I imagine. My wife, Grace, tells me not to think such things. She keeps her mind on heaven, she tells me, because that's where her salvation lies. And sure. But I intend to appreciate salvation by knowing what I'm being saved from.

    And I don't want to hear that sound again. When I fell on the floor that time and felt like death had a nail in its hand clawing around inside my chest, I thought not much could be worse. But I know now what's worse--to have death creep into you without a notice or muscle twitch and just sit there and stop your blood. When I heard that mooing, all those cattle--and don't ever tell me animals don't know something about the future, all those cattle bellering and lowing, like some big off-key organ with a soul--when I heard that coming down to me, my heart stopped entirely. I couldn't've run if there'd been a fire built under me. Couldn't've run if there'd been a flood.

    Down it came, and I did this: I turned and looked behind me. I did. I looked to see if the town was still there, as if I thought maybe it'd up and move when it saw this riot roaring down. But there it was all right, sitting like always. There it was, covered in trees, hardly none of the houses visible, just a couple of the church steeples sticking up. The St. John's bells started ringing when I turned. Right then, they started ringing--and this thing roaring down.

    I turned back. It was only a couple hundred yards away from me, and still gaining speed. "I can't believe," I said. "I don't. Who the hell?"

    Then I knew.

    I knew the way the cattle knew.

    Then there he was, going by me, not even seeing me, I don't believe. I was lucky enough to be on the outside of the curve, because he took it like a race car driver, swinging wide at the beginning and cutting across the center to the inside shoulder and never once letting up on the accelerator. Two-Speed Crandall--as if anyone doesn't know.

    And LouAnn beside him on the other seat. Flick, and they were gone. Gone, and I was looking at the back end of the thing, the road ditch grass whirling in the eddies, and the cattle's bellering coming back, and the meadowlark still singing, and the bells still going, and the diesel smoke curving over the trailer like two black horns and coming down to where I breathed.

    But there was a moment when they went by that I'm not likely to forget. The sun left the windshield, and it was like I was staring into a dark, cool cave, and inside the cave were two faces that I knew, but they weren't like I'd ever seen them before. Two-Speed was looking out, but all he saw was the road. He didn't have a look on his face. He didn't have an expression. It was like his face was the road itself, like he was so intent on it that it ran right up the windshield and into his face. And that's what he had there--an expression without an expression, just lots of empty miles, like a road that goes nowhere and gets there too fast.

    LouAnn was sitting sideways in her seat, and she had her hand on the air-horn pull, and she was looking right at Two-Speed, who wasn't looking at her, and she was ... well, I don't know. Her mouth was moving, so I guess she was talking to him, but he wasn't listening or caring. I got it like a photograph, that scene. Flick, and it's there and gone, and not a chance to change it. I'm gonna remember it for a long time.

    I'm gonna remember it like this: Like they were carrying their own world down that hill. Like the space behind the windshield was something different than the space I was standing in. Like I didn't have nothing to do with them and them nothing to do with me. It sounds strange to say this, considering what was happening, considering what was going to happen, what did happen--it sounds real strange--but I can't think of nothing to make it clear but goldfish.

    Grace has a goldfish bowl, and I'll be danged if I get it. Those fish just frustrate me. Stare at them long's you want, they still got nothing to do with you. They ain't in the world, not really. Once every day some food drops onto them from the world, some flecks of stink they eat. But that's it. They're in their own world, and they got their own space, and they don't care about you, and I'm not sure they care much about each other.

    Take it for what it's worth, I don't know. But sometimes I get the feeling, watching them fish, that if they could pick their world up they'd smash it in your face--just to do it. And suffer the consequences. Suffer the gasping and dying. Just to do it. Just to spite your face.

Dr. Piersoll

I thought i'd come out to the sticks after medical school, or what I thought was the sticks, and do some good for people instead of going after the bucks in suburbia. My reed school pals thought I was crazy. By the time I figured out that I hadn't come here so much to do some good as to bless the people of the sticks with my suburban presence, I was too entrenched to move. I'd brought babies into the world and watched them grow, and I knew their parents and had kids of my own who were their friends. And I knew all the stories. So I bought some land, and my wife and I promised each other we'd go to Minneapolis once a month for theater or art, and we never kept that promise. Instead I learned to hunt ducks and pheasants and got pretty good at skeet shooting, and I trained my voice singing with the Lions Club at their Wednesday meetings. I can't tell you what's at the Guthrie this week, but I can probably tell you what became of most of the children I helped birth, or I can tell you what I've heard of them.

    I know the talk that goes around as well as anyone, and I'm as ignorant of the events. The truth is, there's not much that anyone really knows about this last thing. We know this: Two-Speed Crandall came down the hill on Highway 4 with a semiload of Leo Gruber's cattle. He made the curve into town and threaded the semi between two trees and hit the mayor's new house with the swing of the trailer, opening up the living room, scattering two-by-fours and siding. He roared on down across the lawns of the entire block, leaving tracks in them all, then found another hole in the trees lining the sidewalk and emerged to descend on Main Street like a bowling ball among pins.

    You can imagine all this from the evidence. You don't even need Skeet Olson's story, though he's a celebrity here lately, the only eyewitness--if that's any claim to the truth. But the only thing he knows that you couldn't figure out some other way is that Two-Speed was accelerating. And that just leads to questions, and guesses as to their answers. But the rest, what really happened, what we know--well, a semi isn't subtle. The truck hit the bank, smashed its automatic teller, destroyed its facade, its plate glass, its plants inside the windows. Then it went back across the street to smack Angel Finn's hardware store, sending files and hammers and hip waders spewing across the sidewalk. A twelve-pound maul, through some strange physics, flew across the street and embedded itself in the wooden front of the pool hall, where Walt Latham, the proprietor, had the good sense to leave it, as a draw to customers and an aid to conversation.

    Mooing and roaring, the truck left the hardware store, straightened out, and hit the brick barbershop at the T on Main head-on. A little more speed and it would have gone right through and out the other side, but the bank and hardware store had slowed it down. The cab penetrated and came to a stop inside the building. Two-Speed Crandall was ejected through the windshield. He came to rest upside down over the second and never-used barbershop chair. There's some symbolism there. In death as well as life he didn't quite fit the places where he landed.

    LouAnn was with him. She remained inside the cab. And that's all anyone knows for sure. By the time I got there the police and firemen had extricated her and Two-Speed and were placing them inside an ambulance, needlessly. I checked them, but then climbed into the ambulance anyway and went with them to the hospital in Clear River. I'd helped to birth their sons, and even here anymore, you've got to protect yourself against any claim to carelessness.

    Through the back window of the ambulance I saw the firemen washing off the street. They didn't know what else to do. Nothing in their training had prepared them for anything like this. They were used to hooking up hoses and turning nozzles on problems, so that's what they did. The water crashed out, white with air, and hit the mass of blood flowing from the cattle in the semi, and ran in pink froth down the gutters. Only later, when Leo Gruber arrived, would he see what had to be done. The firemen, I've heard, shut off their hoses when he stepped from his car. They watched as he walked to the wreckage of the semi and peered through the slats, and in the silence they heard for the first time the hoarse breathing of cattle. Until then no one had stopped to listen. Leo turned and walked to the fire chief and asked for a four-wheel-drive pickup with a winch.

    But you see how quickly you move from the evidence. Already I'm telling what I've been told.

Pop Bottle Pete

Sometimes the sun's real hot. Sometimes it's real hot. It's real hot like fire, and I feel like an egg. I fry. Just like an egg.

    But the bottles're cool. They're in the grass. In the ditches in the grass. People throw them away. Cans too. Sometimes I see them. But not usually. I usually don't see them throw them away. If I saw, I'd know where to look. Usually I just walk and look. Because they do it at night and always. Even in winter, when I stay home. So I have to walk and look.

    When the sun's real hot I feel like an egg. I sizzle. I sizzle with my mouth. Sizz-z-z-z-z-le. Like an egg. But I still look.

    The bottles're cool. The cans aren't cool, but the bottles are. They're both in the grass, but the bottles are always cool. Sometimes there's something in them. I'll sometimes taste. If no one's coming on the road. So they don't think. Especially Coke. It's the real thing. It sticks at my mouth. I'd like to play volleyball on a beach. With girls. That'd be the real thing.

    People wave to me. They honk their horns. I wave back. They wave and honk their horns. If a semi goes by, I raise my fist and go up and down with it. Sometimes they pull the big horn. Wa-a-a, wa-a-a-a. Like a ship. Like fog. When they do that, even if it's hot, I don't feel like an egg. I feel like lost in a fog. Like I wish they would pull the big horn always and make me feel fog lost.

    He always did. Wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a-a, until I couldn't hear it no more. I didn't have to raise my hand for him. He'd start way before. Before I even saw him. Wa-a-a-a-a, wa-a-a-a. I always knew it was him, cause he'd start way before. Wa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a, he'd sometimes go.

    I'd shut my eyes. I was a ship and he was a ship. In the cool fog. But we weren't going to hit.

    Then he'd yell my name. Not Pop Bottle like most people. He'd yell Pe-e-e-e-eter-r-r. Big and loud. Out his window, going by. He'd stop his horn so he could yell. My name. I'd open my eyes, and there he'd be. Grinning at me. Waving. I'd yell back and wave. Si-i-i-i-im-o-o-o-n. Not Two-Speed like most people. His name. Simon.

    We'd yell our names at each other and wave and laugh.

    Then, when he was past me, he'd throw a bottle out. One I could return. They're worth a nickel. People throw them away. But all you have to do is take them back, and they'll give you a nickel. Or a dollar if you have enough. He threw it out because we yelled our names at each other.

    Then he'd wa-a-a-a again until I couldn't hear it no more. I never felt like an egg then. I felt cool and good.

    He was just feeling like an egg. Like he was sizzling and sizzling, and he couldn't find something cool. Sometimes if I don't find a bottle for a long time, and the sun's real hot, I'll feel like smashing myself. Just to let the hot out.

    That's what he did. Because he couldn't find something cool. You can't feel like an egg all the time. You have to smash yourself.

    I never sold the bottles he threw. I got them on a shelf. I probably got enough, I could buy a Walkman.

    But I'd rather have the bottles. He always wa-a-a-a-ed and waved and called my name. And I called Simon.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Matthiessen
Intelligent and intuitive—a very promising writer.

Meet the Author

KENT MEYERS is the author of The Work of Wolves, Light in the Crossing, The River Warren, and The Witness of Combines. He is a recipient of an ALA Alex Award, two Minnesota Book Awards, and a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Award. His work has been included in the New York Times list of Notable Books and is published in a wide array of prestigious magazines.

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