The River Why (1983) is a novel by David James Duncan (1952) that I’ve reread now because the movie version (2010) casts Amber Heard in the female role. The movie is very good, the novel stellar.
The novel is now historical fiction. It accurately and brilliantly depicts what it was like to be a certain type of American male coming of age in 1970. I know because I was there and not so dissimilar to the protagonist, Augustine (Gus) Orviston. Who is no doubt a fictionalized version of the author.
The story has so many levels. Most probably unknown to the author when he wrote it. I first read it in 2001 when I ordered it and stocked it in my bookstore. The writing style is experimental and crazy good.
The “Ideal Schedule”
was Gus’s plan for achieving happiness, after he had left home and his tumultuous family. His mother and father fought constantly and his little brother, Bill Bob, was seriously nuts. Dad, or H2O, was a fraud, a snoot, and self-absorbed. Ma was sassy, pugilistic, and the opposite of H20 in every way. Gus escaped to “the River Why” to fish and pursue his sanity. Moreover, his happiness. Thus, the Ideal Schedule. or USA. Or, “Unending Satisfaction Actualization”.
Of course, that’s not how Gus’s life unfolds. Gus is actually lonely, isolated, and depressed. Enter the beautiful girl, Eddy, to save his life. In addition, there are all kinds of goofy (not uncommon in the 70’s) characters and weird happenings (also not uncommon.) Including an Eastern-believing philosopher, Titus, and a talking dog named Descartes.
is superb. Duncan’s descriptions of the land (Oregon), fishing, and people are stunning. As well as the interpersonal interactions. Here’s an example:
Ezra Brooks Bourbon proved a fine tongue loosener, and Titus a sympathetic listener: I started at the beginning–the evening after the Anvil Abe episode–and the whiskey got to flowing, so did I. I talked for hours without a break, pouring out all I’d thought and felt and seen … Titus smoked pipe after pipe, nodding and grunting now and again, keeping our cups full, soaking it in. He didn’t interrupt or cross-examine, didn’t counsel or question, … I chugged my pride with a whiskey chaser …
is me. About the same time as Duncan was writing this – I was living it. Like Gus, I was a fishing fool, and given the name Dr. Trout by my second wife, Julie. Also like Gus I’d found a beautiful girl on a river, Kathee, my first wife. And later on Rhaine. A girl not unlike Amber Heard in many ways.
Eventually, I moved to Oregon (2004). Lived in the habitat that Duncan wrote about. I even heard him talk about writing. It was so inspiring as I was in the process of writing my first novel. Yeah, crazy.
The beautiful girl
who saves your life is everyman’s phantasy. It’s one solid trope of men’s fiction. Of course, it’s true in real life, too. However, not that common. Often what happens is what happened to Amber Heard and Jonny Depp – disaster.
Amber Heard, at the age of twenty-four, was cast in the leading female role of the movie. I don’t know if she’d read the book, but the movie would’ve been sufficient to plant in her head all that she needed to screw up her life.
I think Ms Heard internalized the story and character. That became her phantasy; and Jonny Depp the lost, lonely boy she was going to save. Even the dog poop in the bed is in the tale! It’s twisted, for sure. But recall on the stand Heard said that event was a “practical joke gone wrong”.
In the story, the dog shit is a “dreefee”. Dreefee is Bill Bob’s kid-speak for Dream Feed, a sleep aid for the child. Or, “food for dreams”.
I can’t in this short review give the novel or the movie justice. What I can do is give them both my highest recommendation. They are both incredible works of beautiful art that unfortunately had very hurtful consequences. So far. I’ve no idea how it all shakes out in the end.
Moreover, I wonder how the author, David James Duncan, feels. Or if he even knows? I know if he does know – he cares.
3 thoughts on “The River Why Revisited”
Revisiting an old classic. The dynamic between books & movies is always unique. Never more dramatically tragic than Margaret Mitchell being killed crossing the street at her book’s movie debut in Atlanta. Some say the premiere of GWTW changed the relationship of books & movies forever. Interesting slant worthy of debate as many such declarations often are (Was Altamont the end of the Summer of Love’s hope of changing mankind for the better?). Creative spelling of “fantasy,” by the way. Enjoyed the article, especially the biographical parallels.
“Phantasy” is the clinical spelling – as well as my reference to it. It dates back to Freud (at least). It refers to one’s day dreams, or desire/wish as to the way one wants things to be.
Heard, I think, got all tangled up in her mind, her being so young and, well, troubled. Her lawyers did a terrible job of defending her. The therapists and psychologists also. Depp, for sure, took advantage of her and exploited her. He being 22 years older than she. If not out-right abused her. It’s a shame.
Yeah, books, movies, real life – all tangled up, too. And let’s throw music into the mix. While we’re at it. The sound track in the movie is fantastic! Banjo, cello, and then “And Then We Fell”. Wow. the girl, Amber Heard, didn’t stand a chance.
I just watched another “river” movie, from 1954. Same trope – sad, lonely, competent guy encounters a beautiful girl and via events (struggle) in the wilderness and on a river, triumph and find true love. In other words, save each other from loneliness and despair. It’s called “River Of No Return” and stars Marilyn Monroe. Oh my. I hope “things” turn out better for Amber Heard.