Desert Isle Keeper
Into This River I Drown
One of my favourite contemporary queer novels, Into This River I Drown definitely covers the big subjects – life, the universe (literally), death, grief, redemption and love. One of the themes – the bond between a beloved father and his son – is presented as an exquisite and eternal one, however, Benji has to learn that the stages of grief and separation are a hard but necessary part of being alive and loving.
Five years ago, Benji Green lost his beloved father, Big Eddie, when his truck crashed into a river. Everyone called it an accident, but Benji knows it was more. Even years later, he’s buried in his grief, throwing himself into managing Big Eddie’s convenience store in the small town of Roseland, Oregon, struggling to keep his head above water.
But Roseland is no ordinary place.
With ever more frequent dreams of his father’s death and waking visions, Benji finds his definition of reality bending. He thinks himself haunted; by ghosts or memories, he can no longer tell. Not until a man falls from the sky, leaving the burning imprint of wings on the ground, does Benji begin to understand that the world is more mysterious than he ever imagined—and more dangerous. As uncontrollable forces descend on Roseland, they reveal long-hidden truths about friends, family, and the stranger Calliel—a man Benji can no longer live without.
This is a novel full of lines to remember and beautiful but difficult emotions to experience when reading – all tinged with the unsettling feel of the paranormal masquerading as the normal. The story is woven around a mystery surrounding the death by drowning of Benji’s beloved father; and by the time the denouement is reached, it really does all make sense.
Here Benji describes the stone angel watching over his father’s grave –
It’s as tall as a normal man but much smaller than the man it’s supposed to represent. Nothing in this world could be as tall as him.
I loved this simple truism regarding a father’s importance to his son. This reads as an intensely personal novel and indeed the author dedicates it to his own father, who died when TJ Klune was a child.
The story flows in a meandering, almost ethereal way at first – introducing characters and events both eccentric and everyday. Reading about the small town of Roseland and its inhabitants is like looking through a cracked glass – everything is as it should be, but slightly askew and out of kilter with the world we know. And this is true of no-one more than Benji, whose love, grief and loneliness are calling out to more than just the people in his life.
When Calliel descends, the pace picks up and things can never be the same – not for Benji, not for Roseland and maybe not for the world. The heavy weight of grief and sadness is taking its toll, and as it pushes Benji to make discoveries both earthly and spiritual, the coming climax affects everyone in a miraculous way.
Whilst, the story of the love between a father and son is central, the love story between Benji and Calliel is extraordinary and sensual in its complexity and simplicity. If this sounds like an oxymoron that’s because this novel is that way, too. Simple faith, simple love and simple expressions of community spirit when mixed with the complexity of grief, and the war between good and evil, make Into This River I Drown both an extraordinarily simple and complex tale.
Everything that occurs, from the criminal to the divine, is interwoven with a gentleness, a sweetness and innocence that is hard to properly describe in a review. You can maybe ascertain that I loved this novel by the garrulous Mr. Klune, though the ending is maybe a bit too frenetic – the climax to the story of Roseland perhaps a bit too hyperbolic with too little calm to balance it. These are really minor points considering the sweep of this book.
Into This River I Drown won the LAMBDA for romantic fiction in 2014 and despite beating another big favourite of mine that year, was a deserving winner. I finish with a quote – one of several explanations for the title –
Time is a river, I’ve learned. Always moving forward. But for most people like me, people who have loved and lost, the river is something we fight. We swim against the current, trying to get back to the way we once were, trying to hold onto anything to keep us from getting swept away. It’s exhausting and eventually we tire. Still, we push on. I can’t let him go into the river and be swept away. I can’t let him go.