This Mississippian’s debut novel draws readers into a Gulf Coast landscape where nearly all has been lost and survival and redemption are paramount.
Michael Farris Smith’s first novel “Rivers” was released earlier this week. Set on a post-Katrina Mississippi Gulf Coast, the book imagines a worst-case scenario for residents who remain after the storm. Described as dystopian, “rough South” and a western, “Rivers” has been compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy with cadences of Ernest Hemingway. While Smith says he just wanted to write a literary Southern novel, there’s no doubt that “Rivers” has an element of fantasy – albeit a bleak one – and places its characters in a sort of Wild West environment where the rain never stops, food and supplies are scarce and it’s every man for himself.
Smith was teaching at Auburn during Hurricane Katrina and describes the helplessness he felt watching parts of his home state of Mississippi be destroyed. “You want to get in your car and you want to go down there and do something, but there’s nothing you can do,” he says. He and his family moved to Columbus in 2007 when he was offered a job as associate professor of English at Mississippi University for Women. He had published a dozen or more short stories by that point but was ready for something more.
“I started two or three different drafts where I wanted to write something set in South Mississippi dealing with the Katrina event, and I just didn’t like any of it,” he says. “It just felt fake to me. It didn’t feel very real, so I just tossed those. It was a couple more years until I had the ‘Rivers’ idea.”
He told himself to forget about Katrina and just think about the worst possible scenario that could happen after a hurricane. That led him to the barren landscape of “Rivers.” People who have chosen to stay after the storms and below “the Line” the government has declared as a geographical boundary are on their own. Hardly any infrastructure is left, government and armed officials have abandoned the area and basically deemed it closed for business. Oh, and the rain and hurricanes never stop.
“Left to itself, the region below the Line had become like some untamed natural world of an undiscovered land. The animals roamed without fear. Armies of red and gray squirrels and choruses of birds. Deer grazing in the interstate medians and packs of raccoons and possums living in garages until they were blown away, then moving on to another dwelling that was now welcome to them …
The kudzu had begun to creep like some green, smothering carpet, taking over roads and bridges. Finding its way up and around chimneys and covering rail lines. Swallowing barns and houses. Sneaking across parking lots and wrapping itself around the trunks of trees and covering road signs. The constant flooding and drying out and temperature swings had split the asphalt of parking lots and roadways, the separations becoming the refuge of rats and skinny dogs. Chunks of beach had disappeared as if scooped out by a giant spoon, leaving the flat waters of a lagoon where people used to sit with their feet in the sand and drink beer from cold glasses and eat shrimp from a bed of ice served in a silver bowl.
This was Cohen’s world as he navigated the Jeep carefully through the rain and the debris.” – “Rivers,” chapter 2
“I decided when I had the idea that I was going to make it was bad as it could possibly be,” says Smith. “Make it as unbearable as possible.
“Rivers’” main character, Cohen, has decided to stay in his home and is better off than most other people who’ve decided to stay. He has shelter, food, a horse, weapons and bed to sleep in, but he’s also lost his wife and unborn child in an accident and can’t bear to leave their memories behind. When everything is taken from him by a pair of hitchhiking teenagers, he’s forced to live in an abandoned church and rethink his future.
Pretty grim, right? Smith is a good enough writer to know that he needed to give his readers a break from all the tragedy. “It’s raining all the time, it’s stormy, it’s gray, the situation is pretty tough for everybody,” he says.
“It had been raining for weeks, maybe months, he had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land. It rained now, a straight rain, not the diagonal, attacking rain, and it seemed that the last of the gusts had moved on sometime during the night and he wanted to get out. Had to get out of the house, away from the wobbling light of the kerosene lamp, away from the worn deck of cards, away from the paperbacks, away from the radio that hardly ever picked up a signal anymore, away from her voice that he heard in his sleep and heard through the storms and heard whispering from all corners of the short brick house. It rained hard and the early, early morning was black but he had to get out.” – Opening lines of “Rivers”
Smith uses a string of flashback scenes of a trip Cohen and his wife took to Venice, Italy, to transport the reader to a happier, brighter place. We also become more vested in the story as we experience the love Cohen and his wife shared and begin to better understand why he’s not ready to leave the home they shared.
Smith says the trip isn’t based on anything specific, but that he and his own wife have been to Venice together several times. Plus, there’s the irony of another place surrounded by water.
“Venice is kind of a haunting place,” he says. “When you walk around that city, there’s so many beautiful things there, but they’re beautiful in a different, old world sort of way. So, I thought it would have a ghostlike, otherworldly feel, even though it’s a very real place to contrast what was going on back on the Gulf Coast.”
There’s also the added plot line of buried casino money to put his characters into even more of a frenzy. And it’s this money that brings things to a head at the end and determines who will survive and who won’t.
Smith says he didn’t research news stories or the plethora of other post-Katrina novels that have been published since 2005. He wanted to stay true to his imagination, a feat that makes “Rivers” feel both original and fresh. He does admit that he checked road maps for distances and street names, but that’s it.
Living in Columbus, the childhood home of Tennessee Williams and place Eudora Welty attended college at MUW, is inspiration in itself. Factor in Smith’s renovated Victorian house, where he recently signed copies of “Rivers” during the town’s Tennessee Williams Tribute, and he may just be living a writer’s dream.
Just as character Cohen worked with his father building homes along the Gulf Coast, Smith worked with his grandfather painting and doing handiwork during the summers growing up. “They don’t build houses like this anymore, but it was just incredibly dated and hadn’t been cared for in a long time,” he says about his own dating to 1978. “For pretty much three years, at least one room in the house had something going on. We started with the floor and worked our way up. We redid hardwood floors, ripped off old wallpaper, ripped down the kitchen, same thing with the bathrooms.”
“As a boy he had ridden with his father, and his father would point out the buildings and houses he had framed. Seemed like he had worked on the entire coastline. Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Moss Point. Didn’t matter where they were, what road they were on, his father was always pointing and saying put that one up. Put that one up. Worked on that one there. Put that one up. And Cohen sensed the pride in his father’s voice.” – “Rivers,” chapter 1
One of Smith’s favorite spots is an upstairs, open-air balcony where he can sit on a nice day, strum his guitar (he plays in local band Wild Magnolias with fellow Mississippi author James Redd) and ponder living in such a literary town. “We love being in downtown Columbus,” he says. “There’s so many beautiful houses, so many historical buildings. I think it’s really made us feel more a part of the community than we might have otherwise.”
Smith also has fond memories of growing up in Magnolia. The son a Southern Baptist preacher, his family moved around a lot but eventually settled near the Louisiana border. “It’s another beautiful little Southern town, and there were kids in my neighborhood and we used to ride bikes, and the little league ballpark was like three blocks from my house,” he says.
He lists Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis as two of his favorite places on the coast. “When I was in Hattiesburg for grad school — it’s like 55 miles from the coast, I think. My wife and I would go down there from time to time, and one of the things I liked about it was just driving down there. It’s like a different feeling kind of place,” he says. In “Rivers,” another happy memory for Cohen is driving the coastal roads with his wife, stopping to sip a beer and peel fresh Gulf shrimp on the beach.
“Summer sun and the windows down and they went to Ocean Springs and parked downtown and walked to a patio bar and sat down and drank draft beer and ate crab claws and then they got up and walked to another patio bar and drank more beer and ate boiled shrimp.” – “Rivers,” chapter 30
Despite its devastating circumstances, there’s no question that “Rivers” is an expression of Smith’s love for the Gulf Coast. It’s a tribute to what was there before Katrina and what’s been rebuilt after. It’s a tribute to the people who have remained and weathered the storm so to speak.
Smith says it doesn’t matter what genre his book ends up in. “I’m a Mississippi boy, and I’ve started writing because of what I read in Faulkner and what I read in Larry Brown and Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah,” he says. “I’m happy to be called a Mississippi writer or a Southern writer. I know that I do have a Southern voice. It’s nothing I’m ever going to try not to have.”
We’ll be giving away two copies of “Rivers” for Literary Friday tomorrow, so stay tuned on how to enter to win!