When Filius Poe sets out for Boulder City, the country is in the grips of the Great Depression, the Hoover administration in its final days. Filius, a young engineer from Wisconsin with a number of dams under his belt, has secured a job helping to tame the mighty Colorado and hopes the sheer scale of the era's greatest engineering feat will distract him from recent, devastating losses. Meanwhile, Lena and Burr McCardell, a young mother and son fleeing a shocking betrayal, and Lew Beck, a diminutive fighter with a short fuse to match his statureas well as thousands of other workers–have embarked upon similar pilgrimages to "the only city in America where everyone has a job." Soon, the lives of these troubled souls have intersected, offering up both the promise of second chance at love and the threat of shocking violence and wrath.
Bruce Markuff, the literary equivalent of a master river guide, navigates the stories of these characters and more to offer a breathtaking vista of history and humanity.
About the Author
Bruce Murkoff was born in 1953, spent many years in California and now lives in Stone Ridge, New York.
Read an Excerpt
The river begins, squeezed out of rock older than the earth itself, high in the snowdriven streams and alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, running clear and bright through the clenched fist of granite peaks. Finding its course, feeding off tributaries, for two thousand miles it cuts and shapes, hews and contours, gnaws and seeps through rock and soil, this magnificent gash in the American West.
The river works, ever steady, carving a path through stubborn plates of shale and limestone, while the ground convulses and heaves, sending up rock sheets hundreds of feet tall. These walls rise, nicked and scarred, and the river pours between them, crimson in the dusky sunlight, the color of violence and birth. A roar thrums through these canyons, slick in their newness, only to fade and disappear as fissures heal and molten rock knuckles the ground, frozen in place, supplanted by the rhythmic slap of water on rock as only the river continues to move.
When evening comes, the river is a rich velvet, black as licorice. On clear nights the riffles are razorcut by moonlight, the surface phosphorescent; in the morning the water is milky, its edges patinated with algae; at high noon the sun radiates the surface with the warmth of a silver dollar; and as the sun sets the water dulls to tungsten, then to ink, as it keeps on flowing.
The river is fat with trout, their tails pushing against the driving current as they feed on drifting nymphs that tumble in the gravel rubble. Deer tongues shatter the glassy pools that crescent sandy beaches. Beavers build submerged dens on the cusp of faster water. Speckled hawks nest in the pocked faces of sheer cliffs. Rattlesnakes leave soft impressions in the crumbled sandstone that dusts the ever-changing shoreline.
The river ebbs and eddies, reacting to centuries of seasons. A flurry of high mountain snowflakes will cause it to run its banks on yellow plains below. Years of drought will encase silver-bellied fingerlings in crosshatched miles of rockhard mud. But rain will fall again, and underground aquifers, always cool with dampness, will refill and bleed into trickling creeks that will rise, tumescent and swift, to nourish a river that sustains itself on droplets and torrents, fog and sleet, a champion of its own drama.
For centuries the river remained remote, settled only by Indian tribes along its lesser tributaries and feeder streams. The Papagos built canals and irrigation ditches to cultivate their crops in the valley of the Gila, and wisely built their stone pueblos on higher ground. The Chemehuevis, near-naked wanderers between the forests and water, lived like poor relations on the banks of the Rio Virgen, and tribes of Utes lived in the canyons near the Paria, hunting mule deer on the plateaus and fishing for trout in rocky pools. The Navajo invaders lived in a canyon fortress near the San Juan, and peaceful bands of Shoshones built villages of boughs and rabbit skins on the banks of the Yampa, where they gathered roots and hunted for geese and elk.
The Spaniards came from Acapulco, dispatched by Cortes to find cities of gold in the northern territories. Brave men accepted the challenge, but it was years before a ship risked destruction at the river's frothy mouth in the Gulf of California, sailing far enough inland to allow its foolhardy captain to gaze into the hellish depths of the Grand Canyon before turning back. It took another two hundred years before the padres and fur trappers discovered the headwaters of the river, and a hundred years more before the United States government sent explorers and surveyors and a one-armed major to plumb its mysteries. And with the westward expansion came visionaries and fools, optimists and clowns, to investigate the river and what it might do to nourish the arid reaches of the New World.
Now engineers squatted on the high cliffs of Black Canyon with measuring devices and topographical maps, floating barges in the red water to test her flow. Now the canyon walls, already battered for centuries, are under attack by jackhammers and dynamite, and far below, water bubbles and explodes with the hard tears of demolition.
Unpredictable to its murky depths, the river bows but does not surrender.
The river never stops.
WEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI 1932
He left Chicago after midnight and drove across the Nevada state line four days later, a few hours before dawn. He enjoyed driving through the night-the long stretches of deserted highway, a surrounding blackness invaded only by the nearly parallel bores of his creamy yellow headlights. The hours drifted by, endless and stark, allowing him to think of things beyond his last job or the one waiting for him in the Nevada desert.
Filius Poe took pleasure in being alone.
At four o'clock in the morning he stopped his Chrysler in the middle of the Rock Island Bridge. His white shirtsleeves rolled carefully above the elbow, he leaned on the pitted rail above the Mississippi and brought the silver lighter, a gift from his wife, up to the cigarette in his mouth. The smoke he blew out gusted back and trailed over his shoulder. He turned west to follow the river as it flowed, straight and wide, to the oily horizon. A row of squat tugboats were tied to the pier on the Moline side; a light was on in the pilothouse of the first boat, and Filius could see three men playing cards under the green-painted ceiling. A Canadian freighter long as a city street was waiting in the lock, its smokestacks forming an irregular outline above the factories and warehouses that stood solidly packed along the dismal riverfront.
An engineer himself, Filius never failed to marvel at the wonders of bridges and locks and dams, at the articulated brilliance of construction and design by which men conceived the great ribbons of steel and cable that tamed the open water, regulated the flow of rivers and harnessed the natural energy that cracked like a whiplash through the mysterious earth. It was exactly this manufactured amity between mind and nature that drew Filius to things mechanical and primary, that propelled him westward.
Startled by a sudden beam of light, intrusive as a push toward the rail, he turned, squinted into the harsh glare and made out the gold Iowa Highway Patrol emblem on the car parked behind his own. Two policemen leaned against the squad car, watching. The taller one had his arms crossed, and his hooded eyelids fluttered as if he'd just woken up; the other cop moved his flashlight beam from Filius's face to the fenders and trunk of his car, dulled by road dust. Both cops were young and stocky, healthy as corn-fed steer.
"This your car?" The shorter cop's voice was high and clipped, jangly from too much coffee.
The cop let his flashlight beam dip through the rear window and explore the interior. "It break down or something?"
"No, it's fine."
"You got a bottle on your hip?" The taller cop yawned as he posed the question, and Filius didn't understand a word he said.
His partner impatiently clicked his flashlight on and off, pulsing the beam off Filius's shoes as he stepped closer. "You been drinking, bud?"
"You maybe gonna jump?"
Filius didn't answer.
Their nerves stretched and loopy after a long shift, the cops giggled like farm boys because they knew they'd be home within the hour. The taller cop was anxious to be coiled beneath the sheets with his young wife, both of them naked and twitchy and only half asleep, while his partner knew that his bed would be made, sheets fresh and stiff from the line, and his mother would've left a tin of peaches on the kitchen table just for him. This was the joke, not this stranger, and they meant to let him in on it, to share in their fidgety ease. He could've had a fifth of bootleg gin in his pocket, or leapt off the bridge backward, they wouldn't care. But the stranger, not recognizing their gesture of camaraderie and goodwill, stood by the railing and didn't move. The cops settled down and saw only a tall, slender man, old as a big brother, standing there in his white shirt and khakis, his brown hair as washed out as his eyes, staring at them through wire-rimmed glasses, looking down his long wing of a nose, supposing they were really the fools they were acting, and now their pleasure was soured.
Filius couldn't see this, couldn't recognize their pleasure because he no longer recognized it in himself.
The cops straightened up, suddenly annoyed with the hot breeze coming off the river, sticky with the reek of dead fish and diesel.
The short cop shined his light in Filius's face and gestured to his car. "Move that heap out of here."
"This ain't a park," the other observed.
Filius looked down at the crimped shortness of his cigarette, a burning eye between his fingers. He flipped the butt over the railing and watched the wind carry it below the bridge, the last sparks fading to gray ash.
Thirty minutes later, the Chrysler picked up a nail in the road-the loud hiss of air giving the car a deceptive buoyancy before the thudding knocks of the flattened tire coasted him to a stop along the banks of the Cedar River.
Filius got out of the car and stepped to the edge of the empty highway. He couldn't see the river through the thick stand of pines, but he could hear the cool, chattering rush of shallow water over the stony bed a hundred feet below. He walked back to open the trunk, reached past the spare tire humped under a moth-eaten blanket, pulled out a small canvas satchel, his bamboo fishing rod, his bedroll, a battered tin coffeepot and a bag of oranges. Glancing up at the purpling on the horizon, he knew it would be daylight soon and time enough to deal with the tire. He bundled his gear together, slung the satchel over his shoulder and half slid, half climbed down the crumbly bank to the river beyond the trees.
He didn't so much dream as remember. That night he remembered himself as a small boy, standing on the end of a short pier on the banks of a great lake as a violent thunderstorm tore up the sky. Dark clouds, heavy and slow despite the screaming wind, massed over the water, bundled together like a bouquet of black roses. A roll of thunder ended with a bang he felt deep in his chest. The lake churned below; the water, as it slapped against the pilings, sent up streams that unfurled over the wooden planks, soaking his bare toes and the cuffs of his pajama bottoms. He pushed his shoulders closer to the wind and crouched like a boxer, wanting to feel the storm as it arrived. The thunder cracked again directly overhead and a crooked jag of lightning seared the night sky. In that instant, the boy saw the wind-pushed rain, blistering sheets of it, racing toward him across the water. He looked up into the black gloom-stunned by the noise of it-and the air turned liquid around him. He dug his toes into the slippery wooden planks as the scattershot of rain burst across the boards and peeled off his pajama top. Forcing himself to look up again, he could see only water and the welts of brightness that shattered the sky. He allowed himself to be lulled by the rhythmic pounding that beat in his ears and on his skin, and opened his arms to a tall gray wave, its crest sheared off by the wind, washing over the pier. It wrapped around him and for a moment he was swimming in air-weightless, dream-drugged-until suddenly he was lifted by two big hands that roughly clenched his shoulders and pulled him free of the lake's narcotic pull. It was his father, his long coat streaming with water.
He blinked awake and rolled onto his side. Pushing away his bedroll, he watched the cowbirds move through the brittle leaves near his campsite, flipping them over like playing cards, hunting for sow bugs and red worms. When he sat up, they lifted in an angry ruckus before settling in the boughs overhead.
Filius stood and looked at the river ten yards away: wide and shallow and fast, with calm pockets of flat water along both banks. A neglected pasture bordered the opposite bank, and a sparse stand of runt willows stood in the fetid muck, the lowest leaves nibbled into brown patches by watering cattle. In the broken morning sunlight, Filius made out a small stonefly hatch underneath the willows. He squatted on his bedroll and assembled his three-piece rod, broken-down and tied up with twine. He'd built the rod himself when he was sixteen, carefully wrapping each ferrule with green string and applying coat after coat of varnish until the cane gleamed like bronze. When he had finished, his father burned Filius Poe, Madison, Wisconsin, 1915 into the thick shaft above the cork handle. By now the cane had lost most of its snap, but he'd come to like the new, lazy action. He reached into his satchel for the small Hardy reel his father had given him, and from a sheepskin sleeve, a small Hare's Ear he liked for this water. Still barefoot, he rolled up his pant legs and walked to the river, feeding out line even before he stepped in, listening to it whistle through the guides as he scanned the opposite bank. What he wanted was the big trout finning in the shade under the nipped willows across from him, and when he looked over his shoulder to adjust his back cast, he saw the girl and the baby.
Crouched naked in the shallow channel upstream, she looked young, maybe seventeen or eighteen. Her long brown hair, lathered with soap, hung over her shoulders but didn't hide her breasts, heavy with milk, the nipples large and dark as cherrywood. Washing the inside of her thighs, she looked straight at Filius without moving to cover herself, leaning forward until her nipples and then her forehead touched the surface, hair now swirling in the fast water. The girl remained still, poised over the calm oval pool that reflected the whiteness of her soft belly, and let the current strip away the soap.
On the shore, several yards back, the baby, a boy not even a year old, tottered between rolled-up towels on a green blanket, a scruffy wirehaired terrier sitting next to him. A two-man tent, army issue, the canvas faded almost white, was set up in the clearing next to a smoldering cookfire. Diapers and a woman's print dress hung from a sagging line, drying slowly in the muggy air.
The baby pointed at Filius, laughing, and the dog's tail twitched rapidly.
Filius jerked the rod tip and fouled his line. A great skein of knots fell in the water and drifted toward him. He looked down as the soapy water from the girl's bath swirled at his bare feet. The tiny bubbles formed a temporary bracelet, oily with color, around his ankle before bursting, one by one.
Filius felt his eyes go wet and turned away.
Addie McCabe pulled out the chair across from him and, before she sat down, lifted a small leather-bound notebook and a fistful of pencils from her worn leather bag. She opened the notebook, rolled the pencils in a row in front of her and said, "Filius. That's an odd name."
"I'm named after my grandfather."
Filius shook his head as Addie flipped through her notebook, densely packed with her small, tight handwriting, looking for a clean page.
"No," he said. "My mother's father."
"Was he an odd man?"
"I don't know. I never met him."
They sat at a round table on the second floor of the Wendt Engineering Library. Addie McCabe was a journalism major, sent to interview him for the Badger Herald. She wore a pale yellow linen dress with an intricate floral design hand-stitched into the rounded collar. On her head was a short-brimmed woven hat with a wide golden band. When she finally looked up from her notebook and pencils, her face was framed by the short flaxen hair that fell in bangs over her forehead and was cut straight across at her neck. In the March sunlight that fell through the window over Filius's shoulder, she seemed to have been sculpted out of raw honey.
Her eyes, locked on his, were glowing.
"Are you Italian?"
"Filius. Wasn't there a Roman politician called Filius?"
"That was Flavius."
He couldn't take his eyes off her. In his mind, he scrolled through the ancient history texts from his father's library. "Pope Simplicius. Pope Gelasius. Pope Anastasius. Pope-"
"Claudius. Aurelius. Theodosius." He watched a smile radiate across her face, skin as cool and creamy as the ivory netsuke animals his mother collected. "No Filius."
"Maybe he was a gladiator."
"That was Demetrius."
"So you're not Italian."
"It's still an odd name."
He thought again of honey.
This impressive debut was one of my favorite novels of 2004. Murkoff combines wonderfully cadenced, vivid descriptions of the depression era West (think rangy expansive prose in the tradition of Steinbeck and Doig) with strongly-stamped characters who gradually emerge from the landscape into compelling life. The lives of three individuals flow towards each other ¿ Filius Poe, a strong silent master builder whose life has crashed about his ears (Gregory Peck?); Lena McCardell, a woman who has taken her son and fed Oklamhoma and a traveling salesman who turned out to have another wife and family elsewhere on his circuit; and Lew Beck, a tough little runt who has been twisted by a succession of bullies into a ferocious homicide. These three types eventually converge and roil together at the construction of the great Boulder (aka Hoover) dam. Murkoff starts things off in a leisurely way, carrying you along on his assured, ambling prose suffused with sights and sounds and smells that are a strong as memory itself (there¿s a busride that had me gasping for fresh air), and gradually builds things to the inevitable crescendo.
I like the way Mr Murkoff writes...in other words how he turns a phrase. He's so descriptive you know exactly who the person/scernery/thought is. The ending is predictable, but that doesn't make the book any less interesting.