The Remains of River NamesBooks
The Remains of River Names
Publication date: September 1999
Press: Black Heron Press
Winner of the King County Arts Commission Publication Prize, 1998
Briggs’ novel opens with Artie and Janice Graham, former hippies, fleeing as the police close in on their marijuana farm. They show little remorse at leaving their two school-aged sons behind to fend for themselves. These former flower children possess no ideals or purpose and live for the moment through the fifteen-year span of the novel, while their children, trapped in a cycle of selfishness, become isolated and antisocial. As adults, they separately commit assault, drunk driving, and attempted rape.
“Abstract words like sacrifice or hallow are barren beside the concrete names of rivers and mountains like Snoqualmie, Snohomish,” Briggs writes. Like these rivers, the Grahams are unfeeling and cold, raging and stagnating until the novel’s close. Finally, youngest son Dillon alone pursues redemption by attempting to salvage a damaged relationship with his partner. “You are not just a word or a name,” he says.
While the “dreadful business of living, working, and sleeping makes us prisoners right now,” Briggs demonstrates that life attains meaning when one makes a conscious effort to give of oneself. Powerful in its images, Faulknerian in structure and tone, Briggs’ foreboding portrait of contemporary society is challenging and effective. — Samuel Dempsey
Matt Briggs is a young writer of remarkable promise and skill. He clearly understands the pain of being an outsider in a world that rewards toeing the line. — Chris Offutt
Matt Briggs understands that life in the far West is not all cowboys and tourists and timbering and nighthawks and blooming sage. It’s mostly people trying to love themselves and each other in little underclass towns and in city neighborhoods. The Remains of River Names is an emotionally accurate and vividly compelling journey into actuality. Both breaks your heart and elevates the soul. — William Kittredge
The narrators of the linked chapters of The Remains of River Names – an aging pothead; a woman whose most attractive quality, her sex, is losing its appeal; and their two sons forced to grow up too fast – tell the story of hippie culture and its aftermath in the Northwest. This smart, lucid fiction reminds us that the folks who work at the Millionaire Club, the drunks who inhabit the rundown shacks at the foot of a mountain, the waitresses and guys who work deadend jobs in Renton or Federal Way, the kids who try to get someone older to buy them a case have been a part of our social landscape longer than latté swillers, software geniuses or arty pants rock stars. By telling stories of people with broken cars and tattered carpets and not enough dishes to have a diner party for four, Matt Briggs has given voice to important parts of our Northwest culture. — Rebecca Brown
“The Remains of River Names” by Traci Vogel, The Stranger, August 26, 1999
Matt Briggs’ forthcoming collection of linked stories, The Remains of River Names, gets in the heads of four different people. These people all happen to be related, but informally so, and the casual relationship of the characters is reflected nicely in the casual relationship of the stories to the line of narrative. The Remains of River Names is a book that presents itself without pretense, which makes its grounded intelligence and complexity of prose all the more impressive.
The stories open in the Snoqualmie River Valley, where Briggs himself grew up. Briggs currently lives in Seattle (he is soon to ship off to Johns Hopkins). He worked as the fiction editor at the Raven Chronicles, and curated an online discussion about Northwest writing in 1997 that knocked about veneration of “the great outdoors and rural scenes and wilderness survival and ranching and so on” versus “writing that charts the actual urban heart of the Northwest.” It’s not easy to tell which side of the argument Remains lands on, because while its principal interest seems to be the lives of the individuals in a transient hippie family, the usual wry urban psychology never surfaces on the page. Instead, objects and surroundings send back reports on the characters’ real feelings — even a “cherry 1967 Supersport Impala.” At the very end, when one of the characters struggles with the inevitable erosion of life and relationships, Briggs breaks open images of nature to present the panorama of the future, in a truly beautiful and visceral passage.
In this way, Briggs’ novel is reminiscent of short stories by Denis Johnson (an author he admires): the characters’ self-reflection is so passive that their reaction to their environment seems almost hallucinogenic — a contrast made more vivid, à la Johnson, by drug references. At one point, Janice, hippie mother of Milton and Dillon, takes her children and moves to a house in Eastern Washington, to escape her drug-dealing husband. She reflects: “Lying in the hot, loose soil in the middle of the pine forest I wished that I could just be one of the plants, fox-glove or a knot of yellow daisies. Dope… stripped me down to skin and nerves and all that mattered was the smooth texture of a glass window pane… all that mattered when I was stoned was the contrast between one moment and the next, the slippage of seconds, which normally trickled by as constant as a dripping faucet into a bathtub.”
With this first collection that functions as a novel, Matt Briggs adds to the gravelly layers of “Northwest writing,” while the controversy over what the moniker means must continue. The Remains of River Names is a beautiful, blunt, and haunting book, one that takes regionalism and splinters it; Briggs’ is a voice that will take our area into the future, and I for one look forward to it.
Review and Links
The Remains of River Names is part of the multifaceted work that has emerged from the Northwest, including music like Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s, Denis Johnson’s prose and the films of Gus Van Sant. — The New York Times Book Review
An auspicious debut volume for 29-year-old Matt Briggs, whose sharp-eyed yet sympathetic vision of life in the overgrown, semi-rural backwaters of the Pacific Northwest puts him somewhere on the spectrum that leads from Raymond Carver to Kurt Cobain. — Salon.com
Briggs exhibits an impressive gift for conveying dark situations and murky motives with illuminating clarity. His multivalenced prose frequently spotlights his characters’ befuddled, soulful searches for greater meaning, capturing the atmosphere of ambivalence, despair and stifled hope around a family painfully unraveling as two boys roughly, uncertainly, become men. — Publishers Weekly
Briggs’ characters are achingly fine, wringing empathy and exasperation at every blundering turn. Through the years, each new job, new house, now lover leaves them untouched, as cruel and innocent as when their journey began. — Booklist
Each of these 11 stories, narrated by one of the four family members, exposed a landscape scarred desolate by bitter reality. The Remains of River Names paints a haunting picture. Under Briggs’ unflinching deliverance, counterculture isn’t the dreamland it’s cracked up to be. — The Bellingham Herald