Homer lays out his memoir in nine sections, alternating between present time—basically, taking a canoe trip down the Current River—and his reminiscences of a 1950s Ozarks childhood. Homer lived with his mother and father on a hilltop, subsistence farm which seems retrograde even for the 1950s. He observes that “The Depression moved into the Ozarks, liked it, and retired there after World War II, letting the rest of the country go on with the boom times.” Cattle and pigs wander on open range; in the woods, you can find packs of wild dogs.The Homers have no electricity. They don’t even have a well, taking their water from a cistern or hauling it in. They raise their own food and pull in a little cash from the senior Homer’s odd jobs. Sometimes, broke, they flee to St. Louis, depositing young Art with grandparents.
Slowly, we learn this is not a typical Ozarks family, if there is such a thing. The Homers are relatively well-educated and young Art always has books to read. There’s sometimes hunger in the home but never violence. The Homers are transplants from other regions, almost exiles. Their isolation derives largely from the father’s epilepsy, and Homer gives vivid, scary accounts of his father’s seizures. The family splits up while Homer is still a little boy, and his return to the river comes at distant intervals—in this book, almost forty years later.
Surely, no one ever offered a more closely-observed account of the Current River: its deep, blue holes, its treacherous eddies and sunken logs, not to mention the fish, the eels, the turtles. And Homer catches the flavor of campgrounds and favorite haunts, such as the drugstore in Eminence.
If you’ve never taken a canoe trip, read this book—but you won’t read it for the plot. Jacket copy for The Drownt Boy highlights a point of action, when the author’s canoe hits a submerged log in the flood-swollen river. He and his stepson, Reese, are capsized and swim to shore. It’s a dramatic, well-told scene, delivered as a cliffhanger. Otherwise, this is a leisurely book, not even a “tale,” but a combination of memoir, observations of the natural world, and learned philosophizing. From that same jacket copy the reader might be forgiven for thinking the “tale” is a haunting account of a boy who drowned, but the boy in question is simply a visitor to the river whose body is looked for and found. We don’t learn anything about him.
Homer is really an essayist. One section, called “Falling,” is just that, a meditation on the descent of hawks, the rush of water down the steep hills to the river—falling is the negation of gravity, and Homer finds freedom in it. In “Storms,” he compares his father’s epilepsy—the aberrant map of the man’s brain—to lightning.
Homers meanders like his river, but he’s often profound. Examples: “I could not know that people are seldom equal to their dreams,” and the more visceral “Nothing is more disgusting than a botched slaughtering job.” He’s perhaps most affecting in his observations of nature. Of lizards, for instance, he says: “I killed one. It lay on its back, its hands slowly curling up, its gesture less a plea than a question. ‘Why?’”
You’ll have to slow down to read The Drownt Boy, because Homer doesn’t care about narrative drive. He’s not quite a poet. He’s a philosopher.