A terse but often graceful chronicle of a family's decline and fall -- a family, to be sure, that never got anywhere in the first place -- The Remains of River Names is either a novel or a collection of interlinked short stories, or perhaps something in between. Whatever it is, it's an auspicious debut volume for 29-year-old Matt Briggs, whose sharp-eyed yet sympathetic vision of life in the overgrown, semi-rural backwaters of the Pacific Northwest puts him somewhere on the spectrum that leads from Raymond Carver to Kurt Cobain. His style is certainly terse and declarative in the now-familiar Carver tradition. But his characters are often startlingly self-aware, and even in their dead-end desperation they remain alive to the remarkable landscapes, both fecund and desolate, that surround them.
Briggs' biographical note explains that he was raised by "working-class, hippie parents" in the Snoqualmie Valley, east of Seattle. So it's tempting (if ultimately irrelevant) to assume that the fictional Graham family of the 1970s and '80s resembles Briggs' own, and that Dillon, the Grahams' youngest son and the most consistently likable of the book's narrators, is something of a self-portrait. Dillon, who's around 8 at the beginning of The Remains of River Names, wakes up one day to discover that his pot-dealer parents, Art and Janice, have vanished from their ramshackle house. They've taken the car, the food and even Dillon's toys, leaving nothing for Dillon and his 12-year-old brother, Milton, but a dinner roll, a little peanut butter and an almost mocking pile of house-and-garden magazines.
It turns out that Art and Janice are on the lam. They eventually retrieve Dillon; Milton, Janice insists, is "old enough to take care of himself." The apathy and even hostility with which they view their own children is characteristic; all four members of this nuclear family are shooting off into space on their own solitary trajectories. But if Briggs is making a point about how ill-prepared '60s casualties like Art and Janice were to raise kids of their own, he does so without rage or didacticism. In fact, in a later chapter called "The House Below Laughing Horse Reservoir," Janice emerges as one of the book's most sympathetic figures. With Art in prison, she makes one last stab at holding her family together, taking the boys to a distant town where she hopes to reconnect with Ray, an ex-boyfriend who is now an important apple grower.
Even Art, a paranoid and self-centered father, gets his shot at redemption, in the chapter called "Sewage Lagoon." With his wife and kids far in the past, Art is out of prison and living with an Alcoholics Anonymous devotee who has vowed to leave him if he drinks a single beer. Nothing much happens on the night Art falls off the wagon and heads to the sewage lagoon to sleep it off, but the episode shows off Briggs' terse lyricism at its best. This portrait of a man so deep in loserdom he can only be an optimist -- who wakes in his car after the binge relieved that he has gotten "an early start for once" -- is compassionate without being sentimental.
For most of The Remains of River Names, however, we bounce from the precocious, compulsively neat Dillon to the uncommunicative, dangerously moody Milton. Rejected by Janice, Milton runs away to live in an abandoned house with his girlfriend and turn tricks on the Seattle streets. The less socially adept Dillon stays home and essentially becomes his mother's keeper. Briggs captures both boys wonderfully as children, but he renders Milton's (unhappily plausible) progress into a violent, misogynistic adult too sketchily for it to be entirely convincing.
Briggs has quite consciously (I think) endowed both these characters with improbably graceful interior voices. Milton looks at a table of women on the make in a smoky bar and notices "the fancy glasses, the kind that looked like upside-down bells, the tall, skinny kind that opened toward the top like stretched flowers." Watching his girlfriend sleep, the adult Dillon muses: "I want you to know I will see you awake again.I will not let you wander away...like some forgotten vocabulary question. You are not just a word or a name." Although Briggs isn't fully in control of this device yet, it can produce some striking results, most notably our sense that Dillon -- despite being deep in debt and trapped in the working class -- is the Graham clan's real hope for the future. Whatever the balance may be between imagination and autobiography in The Remains of River Names, Briggs' career holds great hope, too.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The countercultural excesses of the 1960s and 1970s cast a long shadow on the family at the heart of Briggs's keenly intuitive debut effort--a collection of 11 linked stories--in which narrators alternate between four members of a doomed and unnamed family. As the book opens in the early 1980s, middle-schooler Milton and grade-schooler Dillon have just been ditched by their parents, Art and Janice, who fled their Seattle-area house when the police closed in on Art's pot-growing operation. Mom and Dad eventually return, but their misadventures repeatedly throw the family into chaos just as the two boys enter adolescence. Art serves jail time, Janice takes the kids and leaves him, then lives with a succession of boyfriends and finally kicks Milton out at age 16. Desperate for some form of stability, Milton pursues exercise and violence, growing into a powerful weight-lifter and a would-be rapist, while little brother Dillon becomes bookish and defiant. Sweetly, and unexpectedly, the adult brothers cling to each other with a bond forged from their dysfunctional childhood--but one senses that nothing can really save them, not even romantic love, which Milton finds in a bar and Dillon finds in a waitress like his mother. The book's bleak outlook is reflected in its title, which stems from one of Janice's friends, Joe, who tells Dillon that nothing has value but "the old names of places... they are the only spoken thing that is not a lie." Briggs exhibits an impressive gift for conveying dark situations and murky motives with illuminating clarity. His multivalenced prose frequently spotlights his characters' befuddled, soulful searches for greater meaning, capturing the atmosphere of ambivalence, despair and stifled hope around a family painfully unraveling as two boys roughly, uncertainly, become men. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
My Name's Roy
Before I shake my older brother Milton awake, I eat all the food, a hard
dinner roll and a teaspoon of peanut butter scraped from the bottom of the
Adam1s jar. I set the empty jar quietly in the trash so I won1t wake Milton.
He grunts in his sleep and I stop my loud chewing. If he knows that I1m
eating the last of the food, he1ll seriously beat my butt.
Once the roll drops into my stomach, I start to get really hungry. My teeth
hurt. I want to fill my mouth with one of the cabinet door knobs just to
have something to chew on until the pain in my stomach goes away.
Milton is four years older than me. He goes to middle school, so I don1t see
much of him around the house except when he1s sick. Sometimes in the
morning, Milton wakes up for breakfast and he tells me about the motorbike
he1s rebuilding in the old shed that used to be a horse stable behind our
house. Our place used to be a farmhouse. For a while, our dad grew plants
behind the thick door of the root cellar and sold the leaves to people who
dropped in. Dad and his friends sat around the kitchen table and talked
about music while Dad licked sandwich bags closed. My dad, he really likes
music. So does Mom. My parents have a stack of albums they play all the
time, The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, Jefferson Airplane, bands like
that. When my parents are around, the house fills with music and flat, blue
clouds of smoke and people talking about stuff that makes everyone laugh.
Once in a while, Mom and Dad don1t come home for a few days from the parties
at their friends1 houses. They sleep over a lot.
This morning, as I walk into the living room rubbing the sleep out of my
eyes, I realize the Chevy is gone. I see the clotted and oil-stained gravel
where the car normally sits in the driveway. The only car in the driveway is
my old Tonka dump truck, its yellow bed filling with rain water.
In the big bedroom, the sheets of my parents1 bed lay on the floor. My Mom1s
old blouses, printed with paisleys, blouses with brown and orange and red
stripes, piled up on the bed. She left her old clothes and took all her new
clothes, ones she stitched for herself with her new sewing machine. Even the
Singer is gone now. She sewed the clothes for herself with the thin,
crinkly, cut-out patterns she kept in the white plastic bag from the
Benjamin Franklin Variety Store in Issaquah. She took me there once. While
she looked through the rolls of cloth, I stuffed a plastic water pistol into
my pocket. Before we left, the manager made Mom pay for the pistol and she
needed to use our return bus fare. We waited together in the Pick Axe
restaurant for Dad to come and pay the tab and take us home. While we sat
there, Mom and I did crossword puzzles and I drank one Coke after another.
The waiter kept giving us slices of hot sourdough bread with little squares
Still chewing on the roll, I search through the back of the cupboards for
some food. At the bottom of a macaroni-and-cheese box, I find some noodles
and pretend they1re popcorn. Mom and Dad have taken all the good stuff from
Milton1s and my room, my stuffed animals, my box of plastic army soldiers,
my battery-powered tank.
I wait for Milton to wake up or Mom to return. I don1t have the TV to watch,
so I sit on the sofa and page through Mom1s old magazines, ones with
photographs of gardens and lawn furniture and orderly living rooms with
books in the shelves. Mom has all the magazines like this because sometimes
they have hints about sewing clothes or, as she once said, "ways to make
this pig sty not so piggie." She has Better Homes & Gardens, Redbook, Family
Circle. She has a lot of magazines, and reading them is the only thing I can
do while I wait to tell my brother what has happened.
I look for pictures of people that look like Mom and Dad, but I can1t find
them. In Mom1s magazines, families eat outside on picnic tables with red and
white checkered tablecloths and paper plates instead of the grooved and
glazed ceramic plates that Mom made at the Seattle YMCA. Men don1t wear long
black pony tails, unless they are in biker costumes. But Dad isn1t a biker.
He drives a car. But instead of a new, little car he drives a rusted Impala
Supersport that1s older than Milton.
Mom once got in trouble for trying to buy People magazine. She slid the
magazine from the rack while Dad, her, and I waited behind a man buying a
load of beer and watermelon. "Christ," Dad said. He grabbed Mom by her
wrists. He told her in a growling voice, "We don1t need that filth in our
house. Real people don1t really read these things, they just sell plastic
stuff to plastic people." Then he shook Mom1s wrist and tossed the magazine
back into the rack. But next time it was just me and her and she slipped the
magazine into her bag.
Inside Mom1s magazines, I hope I will find some clue as to what she has
done, where she has gone. They have been gone before, but they always leave
enough food for us. Mom, and especially Dad, have never been good at telling
us what the plans are. Our family just does things. One day we will be
living in a house, and the next day we will be on the road toward a new
"Christ," Milton says when he wakes up and I tell him that Mom and Dad are
gone, gone with everything important, like the TV, the stereo, and the cans
of chili Dad brought home for us to eat this week. I smell something on my
brother1s breath like cigarette smoke. He quickly walks around the house
rubbing his armpits and smelling his fingers while he looks at the places
where our parents1 stuff isn1t. "Christ," he says again.
"You know what to do," I tell him. He has to know what to do because I1ve
read all the Redbooks I can stand.
When my brother opens the refrigerator door, he leaves it open. That1s okay
because there isn1t anything in it.
"Where did they go?" I ask him. I can feel the cold air of the refrigerator
filling the kitchen. If Dad saw Milton, someone would be getting some
serious blue bruises.
Milton opens the cupboards looking for the chili that1s supposed to be
there. He looks at all the stuff that isn1t there and he says, "Hell, I
"You don1t know? You1re my older brother, you have to know, don1t you?"
"Don1t Ocha?" he says, mimicking me. "Look, we may sleep in the same room. I
may sleep in the bunk below you, but that doesn1t mean that I1m really your
brother. I1m not related to a freak like you."
I sit down on the edge of the table. "We have the same mother and the same
father. I1m not your half brother. I1m your full brother, the real thing."
"If I1m your brother, where are Mom and Dad?" He ducks out of the kitchen
and I close the refrigerator door.
He puts on his work shirt and he walks through the rain to the old stable
and starts working on his motorcycle that they haven1t taken and I wish they
had. Sometimes, when my brother pretends he likes me, he calls me Stickbutt
because one time when we went skinny dipping in the Snoqualmie River my legs
were so skinny he couldn1t look at me. "Get your pants back on and hide your
skinny ass," he said.
I sit at the window with a handful of magazines and watch the rain fall and
roll down the driveway in a muddy stream. While I sit there watching, a
police car pulls into the drive, and a policeman in a black rain coat and a
big Smokey the Bear hat walks up to the house. He stops to look at my old
Tonka truck. I don1t want him to think I1ve ever played with it. When he
sees me looking at him, I wave and I open the door. I can take care of
myself. I don1t want a policeman to take me to a foster home, to a couple of
strangers who1d be jealous of my real mom and dad.
"Hello," he says in a deep voice that sounds just like I thought it would
"Hi," I say and I lean against the door, acting like Milton.
"Your parents around?"
"They just left to get some milk," I say, "and some Cheerios. My brother1s
here, but he says he1s not really my brother and he won1t listen to me when
I tell him he is."
"Yeah," the policeman says. He tips his hat back and looks up to where my
brother works and makes a racket in the shed. "Well, he shouldn1t say a
thing like that to his own brother."
"No, he shouldn1t," I say, "but that1s the way he is."
"Mind if I take a look around?" he asks me.
"Help yourself," I say.
He walks through the house. He stands in the root cellar where my dad, just
yesterday, had been growing his big green plants. "So this is where your dad
had his own little garden," the policeman says. He knocks an almost empty
ten gallon drum over, dumping out a handful of potting soil. I wait while
the policeman goes and tells Milton that he shouldn1t talk to his brother
the way he does. Milton doesn1t even stop working. He just lays under his
motorbike because he1s so rude.
The policeman gets back into his police car and he says, "When they come
home, why don1t you give me a call so we don1t have to worry about you." The
thick blue carpet and warm odor of coffee make me want to get into the car
and just sit in the seat and watch the rain rush down the windowpanes. He
rips a yellow-lined piece of paper from his plastic notebook. I hold the
paper in my hand. His handwriting is square and huge.
"Thanks," I say.
As the police car pulls away, I fall back onto the wet front steps,
breathing in the cold odor of moldy wood and listening to the clash of metal
from Milton1s work. No one will take me away. I can just wait until my
parents come home. When they come home with groceries, I1ll eat sandwiches
and pizzas until I expand like Jiffy Pop. The house will fill with music and
smoke and my parents1 friends who laugh so hard they have to cover their
mouths with both their hands.
Milton fires his motorbike. The engine buzzes and spits like the starting
lawn mower. Milton flexes his muscles while he twists the throttle. He looks
at me and bats the hair out of his eyes. He grins and laughs but I can1t
hear his voice over the roar. Dropping the back wheel to the ground, he
jumps on the seat and races down the driveway, past me and away. I fold my
hands under my butt, and sit with my legs crossed while I listen to the buzz
of the bike fade down the road. I wait for him to come back.
He doesn1t come back until much later and, by that time, I1ve drawn the
water for a bath and sat in the water until it grew cold. I found an old
pair of scissors and cut out all the pictures of women in the magazines and
stacked them according to hair color. The blondes have the largest stack but
Mom has brown hair and I find a few women with brown hair and I stack them
and pair them with likely men. I can1t find any man who looks like my
father, with his long black ponytail and bristly beard, among the men in
blue suits and yellow polo shirts.
A girl with sort of brown hair comes back with Milton. She sits on the back
of Milton1s motorbike, has her small white hands folded across his chest.
She carries a backpack, Alpine Explorer, the same model Milton and Dad use
when they go hiking for a long time. They like the metal frame and dozen
pockets because they can carry apples or cassette tapes or Milky Ways.
Milton rides the bike up the drive and then they jump from the back. She
smiles at me and he smiles at me. "Hey Stickbutt," he says, "this is Annie.
She1s my girl."
"Hey," Annie says. She holds the straps of the backpack with her hands. She
flicks up her chin when she says the word like she1s just met me on the
street or something. She nods like she wants me to think she1s cool.
Milton says, "Hey, Babe, give me that backpack." When he takes her off the
bike he kisses her on the lips. As he kisses her she closes her eyes and
leans back. He kisses her and then he does something gross. He puts his
tongue in her mouth.
"Why are you doing that, Milton?" I ask.
He says, "Stop looking, Perve, and take this inside." He tosses me the
backpack. It1s light. When I take it inside, I find wrinkled shirts, jeans,
and an army surplus rain coat stuffed into the main pocket. She has a book,
Hollywood Wives, by Jackie Collins. I sit on the sofa with the book. Someone
has written in loopy handwriting on the inside cover, "To lovely Ann for her
"You like my book?"
"It fell out of your backpack," I say as I push her clothes back inside the
"So what1s your name beside Stickbutt?" Annie asks. She doesn1t sit on the
sofa next to me, but flops down spraying her soft hair over my face. I smell
"My name1s Roy," I say.
"Roy?" Milton asks.
"No you aren1t," Milton says. "Your name1s Dillon."
"That1s not his name." Annie says, "This kid1s name is Roy."
"Dillon1s my first name. My middle name1s Roy, so call me Roy. Roy1s a good
"You1re not a good guy."
"What do you know about being a good guy?" I ask Milton. All Milton knows
about is how to break down his motorcycle and how to fix the thing.
"So what1re you two doing back here?" I ask. "I was just getting settled and
I thought I would sit down and have dinner."
"We scored some hot dogs and stuff from Annie1s," Milton says. "How about
that?" He jumps off the arm of the couch and he opens the side pocket of the
backpack and pulls out hot dogs and buns and mustard and a Heinz ketchup
bottle with about half the ketchup pushed to the bottle top. My empty
stomach just about buckles from all the excitement.
After we eat the hot dogs, Milton tells me that I have to stay in my room
for a while and he and Annie disappear into my parents1 bedroom.
I see Milton and Annie leave just as it gets dark. They coast down the
driveway with the engine off. They wear army surplus raincoats. The green
hoods fade down the street in the darkness and rain.
When I wake up in the morning it1s so cold I pull Milton1s blankets down
from his bunk. I fall asleep again huddled under the heavy pile of blankets.
Later Mom comes. She comes down from the woods behind the house and pinches
me awake. She says that she was going to get me yesterday but there was a
trooper cruiser in the driveway. "Come on Dillon, we1re going to meet Dad."
"My name1s Roy," I say.
"Come on, Roy," she says.
"What about Milton?"
"Milton1s got a bike; he1ll turn up on his own."
"When can I have a bike?"
"As soon as you1re old enough," she says.
I tell on Milton and tell her that he has a girl friend named Annie.
"Milton1s old enough to take care of himself," she says as we climb out of
the back window and walk up the hill. I look back down to the house where we
had lived. I see smoke rising through the rain from some of the other houses
down the hill. In the driveway I see the yellow Tonka and I wish like a
stupid kid that I can play with it for a moment. "What about your
magazines?" I ask Mom. But she1s not there. She1s already walking into the
trees and I hurry to catch her.