The press materials for Michael Farris Smith’s upcoming novel Rivers compare it to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning journey through post-apocalyptic Appalachia. The comparison is obvious from a marketing perspective, though it may be a blessing as well as a curse. Many readers may write it off unfairly as an imitation. James Braziel’s 2008 novel, Birmingham, 35 Miles, also suffered from this unfortunate comparison. However, when one looks deeper, the similarities and differences between these three novels point to some interesting patterns in contemporary Southern literature. It isn’t just that all three involve some end-of-the-world scenario. All three are written by Southern writers, and all three express an inherited anxiety that has existed in Southern writing for more than a century.
To understand this anxiety, we can look first to the father of Southern literature, William Faulkner. Throughout his work, Faulkner paints the South as a ruined place, cursed as a result of its own bad morals. An equal but somewhat opposing tension arises in a more conservative branch of Southern writers of the 1930s, who denigrated Northern industrialism as morally and fiscally inferior to the ancient “agrarian” lifestyle that celebrated community, hard work, and family. For better or for worse, an anxiety over this tension continues today in a great deal of literature coming out of the South. This anxiety sees the North and South in continual opposition, and it is often expressed in the form of a hard separation between the two. As a result of the conflict, the South is eventually left abandoned and in ruins. Still, many choose to stay and make the best of it rather than make their way to a Northern oasis in which they do not really believe, either physically or ideologically.
Both Rivers and Birmingham, 35 Miles implicate climate change as the primary factor that separates the North and South. In The Road, the cause of mass destruction is nuclear war. One could argue that both climate change and the possibility of nuclear holocaust come about as the result of industrialism and, in a way, just another form of “Northern aggression.” Though none of these three novels make that argument overtly, it comes through in the anxiety of the South being separated from the rest of the country, orphaned and left to die.
In Birmingham, 35 Miles, much of the South has turned into a desert. A few communities exist throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi where people mine for rocks, essentially busy work assigned by the northern powers. The government has given up on them. Birmingham is the Southernmost refuge of what Braziel calls “the Saved World.” Birmingham is also an industrial city, a city founded for the steel industry and named after the steel center of England. Birmingham represents the encroachment of industrial values on Southern land. It didn’t even exist during the Civil War. It took railroads and refineries to make Birmingham a city. The symbolism of the old agrarianism/industrialism dichotomy is strong here. The protagonist Mathew has a wife who has left for Chicago, deeper into the Saved World, deeper into the heart of industrialism even than Birmingham. Though his wife has left, he has so far refused to leave.
The ecological disaster in Rivers is almost the opposite. Instead of a desert, the South is now nothing but floodlands. It’s as if the destruction of Hurricane Katrina went on for years and years, relentlessly, one hurricane after another. Eventually, the government draws “the Line,” and those who choose to stay below the Line do so at their own risk. Cohen chooses to stay, keeps reinforcing his home against the rising tide, holing himself up with memories of his dead wife and the unborn child that was inside her. Meanwhile, roving armed bandits are looting and searching for buried casino money, and the Line keeps shifting farther north, leaving more and more of the South under water.
In The Road, the main character and his young son are travelling southward through the Appalachians in order to reach warmer climates before they are overtaken by either the cold of winter, road agents, or cannibals. Because they are not seeking asylum in a mythical northern oasis, its expression of what I’m calling Southern separation anxiety is not as obvious as in the two more recent novels. However, I would argue that the north/south dichotomy is still there and still plays into the same kind of tensions. The north is cold and deadly; both the land and its inhabitants eat people. To the south, there is warmth and hope for a future.
Stylistically, all three of these novels are quite different from one another, and it is not my intention to pass judgment about one being better or more successful than the other two. The Road is written in abstracted language that reads almost as much like an epic poem as a novel, heavy on imagery and moral certitude, and it has almost no moments of humor. The other two novels are more character-driven, provide more concrete information about the events during which they take place, and also more sentimentality toward the land the protagonists have always called home.
Since Rivers is the newest of these books, and therefore the least known, I will say a little more about what makes it unique. Its characters speak in a somewhat stylized fashion, with cautious curses like “gosh-damned,” which gradually build in intensity as the drama of the story rises toward the end. Cohen, the hero of the novel, has decidedly Christ-like qualities, even leaving a note for the people who robbed him, who think he is dead, which says, “To whom it may concern – he is not dead he is risen.” He takes refuge in a church where he uses scavenged choir robes for warmth, and then he leaves the church enrobed and on horseback. Flannery O’Connor called the South “Christ haunted.” Christ-hauntedness and an (often misguided) obsession with courtly romance traditions are also endemic in the literature of the South, and at times Smith’s use of them comes with a wink and a nod. He writes, “A gold cross decorated the back of the robe and Cohen had the appearance of a medieval crusader scouring a godless land in the name of the Almighty.”
Far from criticizing Smith’s reliance on these conventions, I would argue that this novel’s greatest strength is in Smith’s deep understanding the traditions from which his inspiration springs and his ability to transform familiar tropes into something new. Like most good literature, Rivers uses these traditions and conventions in new ways that carve out new spaces and new possibilities.
M. David Hornbuckle is the author of the novel Zen, Mississippi. His work has been published in a bunch of places. He is also the editor of this here place. In the spirit of transparency, he would like to say that he knows both Michael Smith and Jim Braziel personally. He does not know Cormac McCarthy, but if someone would introduce him, that would be cool.