Two young women drive north into a Minnesota winter night with eleven hours of road behind them and one to go. “Off to their right somewhere the wide Mississippi slugs along through its turnings” and below them a smaller river, glimpsed from a bridge, has “wisps of snow moving snakelike across a black face of ice.” Dread, too, slithers onto the page. There is sleet suddenly coating the windshield, a stop at an isolated gas station, an attack, an escape and then terror. The steering wheel “spins with meaningless ease…the road, the trestle bridge all slurring by” and just twenty pages into Tim Johnston’s new novel The Current the reader too is swept away by the accelerating force of tragedy, expertly staged.
The setup is, of course, familiar. Countless crime/mystery novels begin with rapid action that yields to the slow exhumation of secrets, a template that Johnston applied to great effect in his previous bestseller Descent. An otherwise formulaic tale of kidnapping and endurance, Descent was memorable for the cinematic clarity and lyrical precision of Johnston’s style while an earlier work, Irish Girl, had won him the Katherine Anne Porter prize for short fiction. And now Johnston has combined suspense with substance to produce a relentless narrative in which a small town and quiet lives materialize with an intensity more often found in contemporary short story.
Here, for example, is retired Minnesota sheriff Tom Sutter tracking down his daughter, Audrey’s, attacker. “He got into his jeans and his shirt and stepped barefoot onto the cold concrete of the motel’s second-story walkway and lit the first day’s cigarette and stood looking down on the gray lot below. Birds somewhere, calling and whistling. Iowa birds. Semis somewhere, brakes gasping, the big diesel engines rumbling.” Time and again Johnston catches a character — or a place or a mood — in a single moment. We see a different father, for instance, a decade earlier being taken to identify his daughter’s body and having the sensation “…of not moving at all, of the cruiser standing still while it’s the land, the trees, the wire fences that rush by. Like a fish holding its place in a stream.”
In Audrey Sutter’s hometown in rural Minnesota – her destination on the night when she and her college friend Caroline Price are plunged into the Black Root river – the crime that kills Caroline and that haunts the injured Audrey also revives suspicions about another girl’s death ten years earlier. Gordon Burke’s teenage daughter Holly was found in the same river, supposedly the victim of an accident, and Gordon still lives the nightmare. “Morgue man on one side of the floating bed, Gordon and the sheriff on the other. A body in the white bag, under the zipper…Over these blue, unmoving features play living expressions, like projections, faces of her youth surfacing, rippling, sinking away again into the blue mask.”
The sheriff then was Tom Sutter, now dying of cancer but determined to find the man who caused Caroline Price’s death. And he does find him:. “Sutter’s heart slapping once on his breastbone when the saw the lines on the young man’s face – four neat scab lines running from cheekbone to jaw, like he’d been swiped by a large housecat. ” The laconic exchange that follows vibrates with tension. To reveal all of this, incidentally, is to give little away for this pivotal scene, though among the novel’s finest, is just one of many snaking turns that The Current makes on the way to a fittingly subdued conclusion. And with each turn Johnston adds depth not only to the dual mystery at the core of his plot but also to the lives of the characters at the heart of his novel.
“No evidence doesn’t mean no reason,” Gordon Burke tells Audrey Sutter who learns this herself when the crimes of the past lead her back to the Black Root River and into mortal danger. “The ice sighed, it took a breath – then pitched beneath her. A sharp edge rose like a fin, and her boots slipped down the incline of it and she fell to her chest on the upended slab… Before her, downriver, the ice banked around the woods and disappeared.” It is unfair to begrudge Johnston this heroine-in-distress scene, but his novel hardly needs one. With unhurried ease The Current carries us along, mirroring that fatal river, as clear as winter ice on the surface while beneath flowing darkly into the past.