‘A River Closely Watched’
Growing up in South Deerfield helps shape author’s first novel
Bobby Dubois is in trouble. His father, Blackie, shot a cop and his Uncle Thaddeus, recently released from prison, wants to take Bobby on the lam to keep the foster system from getting a hold of him. A police officer has promised to go to bat for him but Bobby believes “that a well-intentioned heart will never be enough. Not in this bad world.” Going along with Thaddeus’ plan means that Bobby ends up hiding in the woods along the Deerfield River, scavenging for food, pursued by his enraged father, the police and a frighteningly composed tracker named Ed. And that’s just for starters.
The characters and setting of “A River Closely Watched,” a first novel recently out from MacAdam/Cage Publishing, grew out of author Jon Boilard’s experience as a teenager growing up in South Deerfield in the 1980s. Though he has lived in San Francisco since graduating from Frontier Regional High School in 1986, memories of Franklin County stuck with him.
“That character was in my head for years,” Boilard said of Bobby, the novel’s main protagonist. “I wrote a bunch of stories about that kid — he wasn’t always named Bobby. After the fifth or sixth story, I figured there was a longer piece in there.”
The decision to write a novel was guided by practical career concerns, as well. Boilard has been writing short stories since the late 1980s yet was having trouble placing a collection with a publisher, even though individual stories have been published in literary journals and won contests and prizes, including two Pushcart Prize nominations and the Sean O’Faolain Award, an honor that took Boilard to Cork, Ireland, several years in a row to read and teach at the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival.
“I realized, ‘If I really want to make something happen on a larger scale, I’ve got to write a longer piece,’” Boilard said.
Four or five years ago, Boilard decided to take the plunge and try his hand at a novel. “I didn’t really know how to go about it,” he said. “I’m not a big outliner. I just kind of started doing it.”
At the time, Boilard was working for an investment management company, writing speeches for the CEO, annual reports and brochure copy. He worked out a deal with his boss, committing to four long workdays so that he could take Fridays off to write.
“I set up shop at a little cafe down the street,” he said. “Treated it as a work day, put in my eight hours.”
On his Web site (www.jonboilard.com), Boilard describes his work habits as, “a very blue collar approach to craft, which makes sense I suppose, considering my background, my work-a-day New England roots.”
Boilard had completed about two-thirds of the novel when his house was broken into and his laptop stolen. Because he hadn’t saved the manuscript anywhere else, Boilard’s entire first draft was gone.
“I think it ended up being a blessing,” he said, chuckling. “It was my first rough attempt at trying to shape this longer piece and it was a mess. So when I sat down to try again, I felt way more organized.”
Most of Boilard’s short stories are extremely short, at 1,500 words or so, and potent with imagery and emotion. Boilard describes his language as “almost poetic” and it’s most definitely that. But we’re not talking any mistaken notion of poetic meaning flowery. We’re talking language squeezed so far down to its core that it can kick you in the gut one minute, lift you into grace the next.
A public relations letter for “River” described Boilard’s writing as “Southern Gothic.” The second part of this description makes sense, if gothic is meant to imply dark situations and flawed characters. “River” has plenty of both. But Boilard’s story is 100 percent New England. He’s got the place nailed — from the Hot L Warren in downtown South Deerfield to the swimming holes along the Deerfield River and all the little details in between, like cheese Danishes at the pharmacy breakfast counter in South Deerfield, Pekarski’s sausages and Greek pizza. Some of the towns in the book are composites of Franklin County towns — both The Hollywood bar and Wilson’s are in Bucktown, for instance — but Recorder readers will feel right at home in the novel’s landscape.
Whether they will feel at home with Boilard’s characters is another matter. The DuBois men are a clan of a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed ex-cons — and proud of it. And Boilard’s got them down, too. He’s captured the rhythms and phrasings of the local lexicon. Uncle Thaddeus can cuss a blue streak but he’s also speaks in the slightly antiquated grammar of rural New England.
An early review decried Boilard’s female characters as “doormats” and Blackie’s girlfriend does let fear turn her into “a human punching bag.” Several of the other women, like Liz, Bobby’s grandfather’s longtime girlfriend, or Darling Nikki, a stripper at the Castaway Lounge, just know their men too well to engage them head-on. They’ve learned to exercise power in ways the men are not watching for and don’t always recognize. Which isn’t to say they’re in relationships you’d want to model your own after. Almost all of Boilard’s characters are in some kind of trouble. These are the kinds of people he likes to write to about, people “whose souls are in danger.”
“Being in the minds of these people — it’s not easy,” Boilard said. “When I was growing up in S. Deerfield I was ...”
He considers the sentence he’s begun and starts again, “We didn’t have any dough. So we were on the bottom end of the spectrum. I worked at the gas station in the center of town, working on cars a bit and pumping gas. It was a very physical, male world that I was exposed to. And I did pretty well in it but a lot of the guys, they’re not really going anywhere. There was a lot of hard drinking and smoking. You could see how it could escalate out of control pretty easily.”
Here’s how it happens in one early scene, just before a fight breaks out between Bobby and some “Bucktown boys.”
“The Bucktown boys look over and start to laugh. The bigger one looks at Bobby and sizes him up and he looks at his friend. Then he looks back at Bobby and he spits. He’s made a choice. It’s the wrong one, but he doesn’t know that yet and the reality is the other option is not too much better.”
The Bucktown boys are about to get dragged through the dirt by Bobby and his friend, Fat Johnny, but there will be plenty of times when Bobby finds himself on the other side of the equation. As the book progresses, he’ll be forced to make decisions between various degrees of bad. Bobby’s not naive: he knows how bad “bad” can be even as he chooses it; he just doesn’t see any other way out.
“I don’t think I set out for it to be as violent as it became,” Boilard said of the novel. But “with this group of people and the way they live, violence is the only way they know how to get out of stuff. The better you get at that; the more you hurt people. And the more you hurt people ...”
Boilard didn’t finish that sentence. But his book does.
“A River Closely Watched” is not the nicest book you’ll read this year but it’s hand over fist one of the most powerful. Following Bobby and Thaddeus through the woods and fields of Deerfield and Sunderland is a wild ride but it’s worth it because, like Boilard, you’ll come to care about Bobby, not only on a level of sheer suspense — will he make it out alive? — but in spite of Bobby’s background and circumstances, even in spite of some of the behavior he’s exhibited so far, you’ll hold out hope for him. You’ll hold out hope for what can only be called his soul. You’ll want to know what kind of young man he might become.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org