I took an unusual path to this book.
A little while ago, someone who knows of the disdain in which I hold Fantasy novels recommended that I check out The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. The book, I must say, did not convert me to reading Fantasy but I did finish it because while I found the plot under-cooked and the characters somewhat generic, I loved the writing and the imagery. A couple of months later, I happened upon an amiable haircut with a YouTube channel who spoke in glowing terms of Those Across the River and while I didn’t necessarily trust the recommendation, the plot synopsis combined with my respect for Buehlman’s sentence-by-sentence writing were enough for me to give him another chance, and I am very glad that I did.
Those Across the River is set in the aftermath of World War I. Its protagonist is a military veteran and history professor who falls head-over-heels in love with his boss’s wife resulting in the pair eloping together and torching the protagonist’s academic career in the process. After a few months couch-surfing and relying on the forbearance of increasingly annoyed relatives, the protagonist receives the news that he is to inherit a farmhouse not far from the site of a plantation that was once owned by his family. The news comes in the form of a letter from his dying relative begging him never to live in the house. This letter is accompanied by another letter from the relative’s lawyer informing him that she was heavily medicated whilst writing it. Sotto Voce: Screw the crazy old woman, keep the house.
The protagonist’s girlfriend is delighted to have somewhere to live but the protagonist himself already has plans to start investigating the ruins of the old plantation with a view to writing a book about his illustrious, slave-owning, and reportedly demented confederate forefather.
What the couple discover when they arrive in Georgia is a small town that is basically on its uppers: Everyone’s poor, everyone’s ignorant, everyone’s racist, and everyone is enticingly weird, particularly the town taxidermist who identifies as a Muslim and presents himself as equal parts outsider artist and backwoods psycho. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the couple are seduced by the rhythms of small town life: Going to church, joining the local baseball team, playing chequers outside the general store, talking parents into sending their kids to school, ritualistically herding a load of pigs into the woods and never asking any questions about what happens to them…
The town, it turns out, lives deep in the shadow of the old plantation. The plantation itself is situated on the far side of the river, and the locals know never to go across the river. Why would they? It’s just a load of burned-out ruins that have been reclaimed by the forest. While the river and forest form a physical boundary between the plantation and the townspeople, that boundary is also psychological in so far as the locals seem reluctant to engage let alone remember what happened on the plantation and why it burned down. The history of the plantation, much like the reasons for why the townspeople herd pigs into the forest, has been deliberately buried and nobody wants it unearthed except the protagonist.
The couple’s arrival in town marks something of a turning point in local politics as they turn up at a town meeting and wind up swinging the vote against continuing the ritual involving the pigs. This shock to the status quo is accelerated when the protagonist takes it upon himself to investigate the ruins of the plantation only to be confronted by a small boy with filed teeth and an erection.
Those Across the River is a very Freudian novel in so far as its currency is sex, violence, and the price you pay to maintain the suppression of certain memories. The inhabitants of the town do not want to think about their history, they do not want to think about the connection between the town and the events at the plantation. Their desire to forget and repress these things is so absolute that it even compels them to forget the price they pay to keep all of this unpleasantness contained on the far side of the river.
The couple at the centre of the book are educated middle-class Yankees. They are products not only of their culture and the institutions that educated them, but also of the age in which they were born. These are neither the wilting flowers of Southern nobility nor the repressed Christians of the Victorian era. These are people who fuck, listen to jazz, and treat black people with a modicum of respect. They are modernity.
If the people in the town are a repressive superego manacled to a deliberately sanitised vision of the past, their neighbours on the other side of the river are the id made flesh. Violent, hyper-sexual and beyond anything that might even resemble a code of ethics, they are everything that the townspeople want to forget, repress and ignore.
Having shattered the status quo with the arrival of the young couple, the bulk of the novel is devoted to these beautifully horrible scenes in which the libidinous and the violent are unexpectedly made manifest on the ‘civilised’ side of the river. As the novel presses on, the tension builds and the townspeople struggle more and more to contain the dark energies that have long been bottled up on the dark side of the river. Intriguingly, while the town’s initial response to some terrible event is to grab some guns to go and violently repress the Other, all of these attempts end up fizzling out as the townspeople turn out to be a lot better at forgetting than they are at confrontation. Every time you think that some horrendous event is going to prompt the town into action, the characters all shrug their shoulders and drift back to playing chequers in front of the general store.
I have read elsewhere that this novel struggles to stick the landing and I must say that I sort of agree… Buehlman is incredibly good at building a sense of dread, allowing it to rise, and then denying us our sense of jouissance that you kind of expect the novel to end with an explosive denouement that sends ropes of dramatic energy arcing across the room but that moment never comes. In fact, the closest we get to a metaphorical unearthing of the past (this literally happens quite early on) is a scene in which a former slave talks about wanting to punish a guy for the crimes of his forefather only to be met with the absolute indifference of a man who (quite rightly) derives so little sense of self-esteem from his family history that the dude might as well be torturing him for the change in his pocket or the colour of his eyes. Historians of slavery and people more knowledgeable about the reparations movement might find something to chew on in this climactic scene but this European white dude found it to be something of a damp squib. It’s almost as though Buehlman was more interested in slavery as a source of metaphorical trauma than of real political anger and while I would argue that that’s fair enough, I think it did make for a less impactful ending. If you’re going to write about slavery then write about slavery.
Though not completely convincing, Those Across the River remains a powerfully atmospheric novel full of fucked-up people and fucked-up imagery.