William Least Heat-Moon. Our author slips in his anglo name at one point in this narrative, but only in the most sly way, as if it were a secret he uttered by mistake. He also reveals the meaning of Heat-Moon–an Indian (Osage) name for a midsummer moon. Least? I still don’t know. River Horse is that kind of book. Full of signs and portents and knowledge and suspense, always slipping around in currents or running aground in the shallows or stalled at the locks. The goals are definite, but distant, and fulfillment unsure even if the goal is reached. The road is shadowy, liquid, its source unknown and direction unpredictable. Underneath the few visible surface inches is another world altogether, sometimes benign, sometimes dynamic, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile. Always unknown.
River Horse is on one level the non-fiction tale of a man and his boat, intent on journeying across North America by water in one season–the space between May and August when navigability is maximum. For reasons he explains and re-explains and never quite fully justifies, he wants to move east to west, to more or less duplicate a major portion of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. It means that the upstream portion of the trip will be about twice as long as if he traveled in the opposite direction, but it HAS to be east to west anyhow.
He gathers a crew, finds a boat that he thinks will fill the bill (flat bottom for the shallows, big enough to take two motors to fight the current, narrow enough to fit between close banks and rocks), fits out a motorized canoe to fit where the Nikawa won’t go so he can absolutely maximize water miles and minimize portages, gathers a crew, and takes off from New Jersey.
Despite extensive preparation–research, advance contact with lock and dam operators, spotting fueling stations, etc.–the trip is fraught with complications and difficulties. As we travel, Heat-Moon, fills us in with scholarly and entertaining (hard combination to achieve)–often poetic– accounts and descriptions of the history, geography, geology, zoology, and sociology of the lands and cities and towns we pass through. He also delivers a healthy political/environmental commentary on the governmental neglect and commercial exploitation of our resources. Both the journey and the commentary are fascinating and suspenseful. It’s not the kind of suspense where you wonder whether they’re going to make it. It’s the kind of suspense where you wonder how, as in how are they going to extricate themselves from this one?
As if that weren’t enough, there are sub-currents of a non-riverine kind in the relationships among the crew and the inner life of the narrator. People are taking the journey for their own reasons, which don’t always match his, and the levels of commitment vary. So folks come aboard, then debark in mid-journey, leaving ghosts of guilt, regret, resentment. So, too, the marriage that Heat-Moon is leaving behind. We don’t glimpse too much of it, just enough to know that every mile of the odyssey is intertwined with thoughts of what worked, what didn’t, and why. All of this leaves a shadowed frame around a mostly bright and colorful painting. It sounds a bit novelistic for a piece of travel writing, but that’s how substantive this journal is, how much dimension it has.
And I should mention the vocabulary enhancements he provided yours truly. Words such “atrabilious,” “esurient,” “jactitation,” and “cliquant.” Delicious.
I don’t know a better journey book in contemporary American literature. I call it a classic, and an inspiring one at that. A good start to 2009.